There's nothing like feeling, when you're a guest for dinner, that your hosts' hospitality comes naturally. They're thrilled to have you, and entertaining you is easy as can be. The cooking part? Nothing to it; maybe what appears on the table even feels thrown together – but it's all delicious, the kind of cooking that delights rather than impresses. It's not trying to show off.
That's definitely the vibe at Sprezza, Julian Barsotti's new Roman taverna. Start with a few spuntini (bar snacks) -- tender little crisply fried baby artichokes, salty stuffed-and-fried Castelvetrano olives – and a glass of Frascati, perhaps, cool and golden, just the thing for pretending you're in Rome. An antipasto or two, a rustic, Roman-style pizza al taglio, a little pasta, and you're wondering: How soon can we come back and do this again?
The restaurant, which takes its name from sprezzatura – the Italian notion of studied carelessness or nonchalance – is Barsotti's third. At once handcrafted and unpretentious, the cooking certainly expresses a through line of the affable chef's sensibility, which you may have come to know and love at Nonna and Carbone's Fine Food and Wine. It does so in an inviting setting more laid-back (and less noisy) than Nonna's, more festive than the Italian grocery vibe at Carbone's.
The stroll from the valet in back along a path to the front of the craftsman-style house Barsotti built on Maple Avenue evokes a sense of visiting easygoing friends with impeccable taste. Inside, the space feels breezy, laid-back and convivial, done in shades of gray and white and blond woods. A row of counter seats looking into a display kitchen are some of the best perches in the house.
Sprezza's style of Roman cooking is all about letting great ingredients express themselves, probably doing as little to them as possible – or at least making it seem that way (sprezzatura!) – and co-chefs Scott Lewis and Ryan Ferguson are doing a commendable job.
I love Sprezza's squash blossoms filled with oozy mozzarella. Because they float on a really good tomato sauce (rather than being bathed in it), the lovely texture of the blossoms stays smartly in focus. Thinly sliced beef tongue is wonderful, too, set on a thick smear of tonnato (tuna-mayonnaise sauce). It's a delicious spin on vitello tonnato, the classic cold veal dish, set off piquantly by bits of giardiniera (spicy pickled veg – cauliflower, carrots and such). If you're miffed that there's a $3 upcharge for bread, spring for it anyway: You'll want the excellent house-made sourdough to sop up the tonnato.
The menu changes frequently, with a "del giorno" section that's even more changeable than the rest. It was there I happened upon a lemony, perfectly balanced octopus and potato salad flecked with Fresno chiles and a happy dose of chopped green Castelvetrano olives.
Barsotti's inspiration for Sprezza was a pizzeria in Rome's Campo de' Fiori market, and his pizzas are not to be missed. Oblong and sort of free-form, they're crisp on the bottom with supple, chewy-tender edges. If the one topped with squash blossoms, Sun Gold tomatoes, basil and mozzarella had been left in the oven to go just a wee bit browner, it would have gone from excellent to out-of-this-world. Another, festooned with caramelized onions, mozzarella and Caciocavallo cheese, had just the right hit of oregano.
With the exception of a single del giorno entry, the menu does without main courses, which frees us up to eat what we really want: pasta. All are made in-house, including bronze dye-extruded shapes like bucatini (which comes cloaked in cheese and pepper -- cacio e pepe) or spaghetti, swathed richly in a proper carbonara. Those are both filed on the menu under tradizione; under stagioni (seasonal) I found my favorite, fusilli corkscrews with amazing texture whose squat corkscrew shape was perfect for trapping bits of sausage, ramps and escarole in a creamy sauce touched with brandy.
At $18 to $20, the pastas seem to be priced about the same as those at Nonna, but Nonna's, meant as middle courses, get a $7 upcharge to make them main-course-sized, so dinners at Sprezza tend to be less expensive.
A couple of salads, such as one starring cucumber, chile and mint, and a tri-colore number with favas, salame and mozzarella, were likable, if pedestrian. Mezze (ridged pasta rings) in a spicy amatriciana sauce also failed to excite. And a few dishes just missed, like a slightly clunky fritto misto with calamari, asparagus and spring onion, or oversalted tagliatelle with rabbit sugo that had sounded so fab. Lamb porchetta – a main course – was good, but almost too rich to eat despite its vibrant garnish of arugula salad, sliced peaches, plum and red onion.
That said, minor kinks seem to be getting worked out quickly. Sprezza's cooking gets better and better each time I visit, and the service, two months after the restaurant's debut, is warm, confident and thoughtful.
How soon can we come back and do this again?
The bar holds its own delights: Danny Zapata's spritzy aperitivi and other Italian-accented cocktails are terrific. After that, Sergio Quijano's one-page, mostly Southern Italian wine list, with bottles priced mostly between $45 and $59, offers plenty of opportunities for delicious exploration.
Come dessert time, pastry chef Rosa Valdivia celebrates summer fruit in a rustic, mini cherry-and-mascarpone crostada (which I loved) or a fig-and-peach crumble. Her wonderful lemon meringue tart, with toasty meringue painted onto the plate, a bevy of soft little meringue kisses and blueberry compote tumbling over the tart, had a vibrancy missing in the crumble.
The crowds have already discovered Sprezza, booking tables like it's going out of style. I almost want its hotness to lift, so it'll be easier to wander in and grab a table without a reservation, or that a few tables or seats at the chef's counter could be held for walk-ins. At the moment, that's the case only for seats at the bar, but come fall, says Barsotti, the spacious patio will be open for first-come, first-served dining.
If you had asked me two years ago "What kind of restaurant does Dallas really need?" I doubt I would have conjured a laid-back Roman taverna.
But boy, did we.
Sprezza (4 stars)
Price: $$$ (lunch starters $14, pizza $17, pasta $18, specials $10-$17; dinner starters $12-$15, pizza $17, pastas $18-$20, specials $16 to $28; desserts $9)
Service: Attentive, professional, relaxed and friendly without being intrusive.
Ambience: The breezy, open space in a craftsman-style house offers casual dining in several iterations: banquette seating on one side; booths and tables (with plenty of elbow room) on the bar side; and six seats at a chef's counter looking into the open kitchen.
Noise level: Pleasantly buzzy; conversation is not difficult.
Location: 4010 Maple Ave., Dallas; 972-807-9388; sprezzadallas.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. Nearly all the selections on Sergio Quijano's moderately priced one-page, all-Italian wine list come from Southern Italy. Most bottles go for $45 to $59, with about a dozen reserve listings from $65 to $150.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50