In Dallas, a restaurant that opens strong and continues to dazzle diners year after year after year is rarer than a black-and-blue rib-eye.
More often, a restaurant's hot, then it's not. The crowds move on. Maybe the quality drops. Or maybe the owners close shop -- but not before unveiling their next hot spot. Often the best case means the kitchen continues to turn out likable food, changing it somewhat every season, but the elements of surprise and delight may evaporate along the way.
Nonna, Julian Barsotti's modern Italian place in Highland Park, breaks the mold. It's been eight years since Barsotti opened it, an eon in Dallas restaurant time. Not only is it as wonderful as ever, but the creative energy of the 35-year-old chef-owner -- who changes up his menu constantly -- shows no signs of letting up. It's one of the few dining rooms in Dallas where you can count on finding something new and different to excite your palate even if you stop in every week.
Light, puffy bread still lands on every table, hot from the wood-burning oven and glossed with a bit of olive oil, along with marinated olives. To these I like to add a spuntino or two -- stylish little bar snacks -- that are great to nibble with a glass of prosecco or an Aperol spritz as you contemplate the menu. Lately I've loved the baby artichokes alla giudia, tasty little buds braised to tenderness then fried (naked, sans batter) till their edges crackle and showered in shaved Parm.
Last week Barsotti was putting a smart spin on suppli, the fried balls of risotto filled with cheese also known as arancini. The chef fashioned his from cut-up spaghetti rather than risotto and set them on perfect pesto. Inside: oozy, melty mozzarella.
Alaskan spot prawns with superb flavor made a striking antipasto. They basked on a creamed bagna cauda sauce studded with the prawns' crunchy little orange roe; shaved turnip, radishes and carrot finished the plate. Will it show up again anytime soon? Depends on the fleeting availability of those spot prawns.
Another antipasto riffed on vitello tonnato, the classic Piedmontese dish of veal in tuna sauce. In place of the veal, Barsotti started with thin slices of pinkly poached lamb loin, more assertively flavored than veal to be sure, and just lovely on their tuna sauce, more light and polished than most. Parsley leaves, capers and shaved fennel finished the dish.
Most chefs who came up with a plate this terrific would carve it in stone on their menu. Not Barsotti -- the dish had disappeared the following week. In its place were crostini, deliciously smoky from the wood oven and topped with creamy Burrata, paper-thin slices of speck (cured, smoked Alto Adige-style ham), ripe and juicy black Mission figs and a drizzle of aged balsamico. The salt-sweet- smoke balance was spot-on.
Nonna's pastas, all handmade in-house, are splendid, as in bucatini -- hollow tubes as long as spaghetti and barely thicker -- glossed lightly with a buttery white-wine sauce. Barsotti set a tangle of them in a dish of Manila clams casino, the sweet little clams in their shells mingled with cipollini onions and bits of speck, finishing it with toasted bread crumbs and chopped parsley. Just as impressive were light and tender little gnocchetti, not much bigger than chickpeas, bathed in a luscious sauce of braised quail and hedgehog mushrooms.
Spot prawns appeared again another night tucked into tortelli neri -- mini-ravioli dyed black with squid ink and sauced lightly in brodetto over fennel cream. Butter, sage and acorn-fed prosciutto dressed tender tortellini filled with house-made ricotta.
All the pastas are sized as midcourse portions, and depending on how many antipasti you succumbed to, that may be large enough. Otherwise you can ask for an entree-size portion for a $7 upcharge.
I've never been as unequivocally gaga over the secondi at Nonna, though they can certainly be quite delicious. Recently there was an excellent fritto -- hot, light and crisp -- of sand dabs (a delicate, soft-fleshed fish from the Pacific), Monterey squid and Vidalia onion with a silky saffron aioli for dipping: delicious, though I'd have preferred it as an antipasto.
Red snapper and littleneck clams in a salty, tomatoey acqua pazza broth disappointed. More interesting (though very rich) was a pancetta-wrapped roulade of veal breast set over saucy creamed escarole. Wagyu beef short rib was terrific, braised to fork-tender and dressed up with shaved carrots and Castelvetrano green olives.
The casual, brick-walled dining room, with its view of the wood oven, hasn't changed over the years -- and oh, by the way, that oven turns out some of the city's best pizzas: Roman-style, with a thinnish, nicely blistered crust. If you like them as much as I do, you'll want to stay tuned for Barsotti's next project: Sprezza, the Roman-style pizzeria he plans to open early next year.
Meanwhile, maybe just dream about it over dessert. In true Italian style, desserts are kept simple. There's always a signature praline nougatine semifreddo with pistachios on offer, and the house-made gelati are terrific (chocolate, vanilla and cherry recently). But my favorite lately was almond pound cake with a gorgeous light crumb, served on crème anglaise.
Do think of booking in advance, as eight years into the game, Nonna is as busy as ever. It's not surprising that with so much happening on the plates in his ever-buzzy dining room, Barsotti always keeps the crowds coming back for more.
Price: $$$ (appetizers and salads $9 to $20; pizzas and midcourse pastas $15 to $26; entree-size pastas and other main courses $22 to $38; desserts $8.50)
Service: Attentive and professional
Ambience: An attractive, laid-back, casual dining room with a view of a wood-burning oven
Noise level: The dining room, which is usually very busy, can be terribly loud; conversation is somewhat easier at the banquettes along one wall.
Location: 4115 Lomo Alto Drive, Dallas; 214-521-1800; nonnadallas.com
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 5:30 to 9:30p.m., Thursday-Saturday 5:30 to 10p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. Sommelier Sergio Quijano's well-chosen one-page list offers selections from all over Italy for $39 to $150 per bottle; a pricier captain's list is available on request. Eleven selections are offered by the glass, and two reds are offered by quartino.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor