I'd zipped past the place hundreds of times: The impersonal façade of the Centrum building works like a Teflon surface, providing no sticky details to slow traffic along Oak Lawn and Cedar Springs. What lurked behind those tinted windows with the name of an Italian restaurant — Mille Lire — stamped above them? Who knew. But that name — 1,000 units of a foreign currency — hinted that it's gonna cost you even if the exchange rate is good.
All of that, plus the lack of attention the restaurant has received since it opened more than a year ago, made it a surprise to find a beating heart within — and a chef from Naples turning out delicious antipasti and house-made pastas with the direct, rustic flavors he grew up with. Roasted octopus antipasto and delicate crab fettuccine are lashed with the heat of Calabrian chilies or the pucker of fresh lemon. Tomato sauces punch with brightness. The best dishes brim with good ingredients and generosity, served up plain and sometimes looking almost indistinguishable from one another. But each with distinct flavors that can knock you out.
Despite the corporate façade, Mille Lire is a family business, owned by chef Giuliano Matarese and his brother-in-law, Brian Ellard. Matarese's credentials stretch back generations: His grandmother and great-grandmother owned restaurants in Naples, and his cousin, Enzo Coccia, is the chef and owner of La Notizia, a Neapolitan pizzeria in the Michelin Guide.
Matarese headed to New York City 15 years ago, where he immersed himself in fine dining, first working for Charlie Palmer at Aureole and finally being named chef at Convivio, a now-closed Italian restaurant in Midtown.
There is evidence of all of that history at Mille Lire, starting with the dining room, which transforms a ground-floor space into what feels like an expansive outdoor terrace. A vintage Vespa is parked by the reception desk and down a short corridor you find two spacious rooms, one with a high greenhouse glass ceiling, the other under a wooden pergola hung with pretty chandeliers, both lined with walls of windows. They will feel even more refreshing during the hot Dallas summer, with a glass of chilled vermentino and a bowl of the perfectly crisp fritto misto, the shrimp, calamari and zucchini coated in fine, 00 flour and flash fried.
Many of the dishes are based on Nonna's technique and her Neapolitan menu, but with Matarese's clever touches. Lamb meatballs, for example, are cooked in a flavorful ragu with broccoli rabe and feta, but served in a little casserole dish covered with a layer of pizza dough. When the dish arrives at the table, the dough is pierced, enveloping you in a puff of steam and that savory aroma. Tear off a piece of the bread with your hands and dip it in for the full sensory experience.
The meatballs are baked, your server will tell you, in an $18,000 copper pizza oven from Naples (keeping up with the cousin?). Other good things to emerge from it include cauliflower diavola, a tumble of tender roasted cauliflower with house-made 'nduja sausage, garlic breadcrumbs and Calabrian chile aioli.
Oddly, pizza isn't on the lunch or dinner menu, but you can have it if you ask for it: A decent oblong pie made with good mozzarella, burrata, prosciutto, truffles — whatever Matarese happens to have on hand. Our lunchtime Margherita was $10.
All of the pastas are made in-house daily, and one of the best is also the simplest. Gobbi all'Amatriciana, a Roman classic, is a plain bowl of ridged tubes stained red with roasted cherry tomato, pancetta, white wine, Pecorino Romano and Calabrian chile. Like all the pastas, it is cooked to the right resistance, the simple ingredients married to create powerful, layered flavor.
Spaghetti con gamberi, a twirl of noodles in a tomato sauce, comes with four wild Gulf shrimp riding shotgun, their sweetness playing nicely against a sauce boosted with 'nduja. Other terrific pastas include gnocchetti sardi, a Sardinian saffron pasta with sweet Italian sausage and roasted fennel, and cacio e pepe, a very nice version made with curled tubes of pasta that grab on to the glaze of pecorino and pepper.
If truffles happen to be in season, the cacio e pepe will be showered with them and you will pay: The dish doubled to $44 with a pile of Perigord truffles on top. Though it was a generous amount for the price, they were near the end of the season, with only a faint aroma and flavor. I'll stick with just the noodles next time.
The wine list offers plenty of good pairings from regions throughout Italy. At the moment, it is heavy on Tuscany and central Italy, but general manager Roger Bissell, who is from the Barolo-happy region of Piedmont, is reworking it and quick to suggest interesting bottles not yet on the list. The best way to end a meal here is with a digestivo, be it the balanced, house-made limoncello or a briny, nutty passito di Pantelleria, the late-harvest classic from Sicily.
If the entire menu were like this, Mille Lire would be a three-star restaurant. But unfortunately, Mille Lire has another side: Instead of the precision of the pastas and antipasti, a fussy streak takes over in the main courses and desserts.
Saltimbocca, the old-school pounded-veal dish whose name translates to jump in the mouth, lumbers under a heavy brown sauce and a runny poached egg, instead of the traditional deglaze with sage and pancetta. A pristine grilled branzino is ruined by plating it under a salad of frisee and pickled carrots, with the head — somehow slick and gray, as if it were still alive — propped up on a lemon wedge, looking on beseechingly as you help yourself.
Filetto di manzo was a tender, good quality beef tenderloin from Niman Ranch. But why was it wrapped in bacon, like a 1970s flashback, and served with French fries doused in truffle oil? I couldn't bring myself to order the grilled halibut, which came with a lemon-ginger beurre blanc.
This was the Mille Lire I feared on all those drive-bys: Soulless, overwrought, old fashioned.
Yet so much of the menu is as contemporary and tailored as an Isaia suit. If Matarese can bring out the shears and trim the odd frills, Dallas may just get an Italian restaurant to celebrate.
Rating: Two and a half stars
Price: $$$ (Lunch $9 to $13 starters; $14 to $16 pastas; $19 to $25 mains; $6 desserts. Dinner $12 to $19 starters; $21 to $25 pastas; $32 to $44 mains; $10 desserts. Happy hour $6 snacks, $3 to $6 wine, beer and cocktails. Brunch, $10 to $22.)
Service: Friendly, knowledgeable and professional, with a certain dolce vita style. You'll probably be on a first-name basis after your first visit.
Ambience: It's a surprise to find a restaurant with Italian soul at the foot of an impersonal glass tower in Uptown. But chef Giuliano Matarese has created what feels like an expansive terrace in his native Naples on a busy stretch of Oak Lawn. A wooden pergola hung with pretty chandeliers, a high greenhouse glass ceiling and walls of windows bring the outdoors in, and Matarese's lightly polished versions of the rustic dishes he grew up with complete the fantasy.
Noise: Easy listening (64 decibels)
Drinks: A regional Italian wine list emphasizes midrange classics, with some selections punching above their class, such as 2016 Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Nebbiolo ($59) and 2015 Lungarotti Bianco di Torgiano Vermentino ($42). General manager Roger Bissell is developing the cellar, so be sure to ask about bottles that may not be listed yet. At the end of the meal, a strong selection of digestivos runs from house-made limoncello to hard-to-find 2011 Nikà Passito di Pantelleria.
Recommended: Lamb meatballs, cauliflower diavola, fritto misto, roasted octopus, gobbi all'Amatriciana, gnocchetti sardi, spaghetti con gamberi, fettuccine al limone, Amarcord cocktail
GPS: Go for a window booth or table, or sit near the center of the second room for glimpse of the kitchen and its copper pizza oven.
Address: 3102 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 972-597-1366; mille-lire.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m. Happy hour Monday-Saturday, 3 to 7 p.m. Brunch Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Credit cards: All major
Health department score: A (90, September)
Access: Elevator up to the lobby from the parking garage; restaurant and bar are on one level.
Parking: Free with validation in the building's garage.
4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)
3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)
2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)
1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)
No stars: Poor (Not recommended)
Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.
60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.
70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.
80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.
86-plus: Tarmac at DFW.
Average dinner per person.
$ -- $19 and under
$$ -- $20 to $50
$$$ -- $50 to $99
$$$$ -- $100 and over