There’s an Emily Dickinson poem about success that Peter Tarantino often contemplates. Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed. / To comprehend a nectar / requires sorest need.
How many restaurateurs do you suppose go around reciting poems about recognizing the value of something you do not have? But for passionate Peter Tarantino—artiste, tireless laborer, conventional-wisdom fighter—poetry is absolutely part of the big picture at his new restaurant in Deep Ellum, along with art, making a stand, championing the underdog, and recapturing that ol’ Tarantino magic. Oh, and Italian food.
In other words, people don’t go there just for the pizza. Which is perhaps just as well. The pizza, while a perfectly adequate one made with loving care by Peter’s younger brothers Matthew and Patrick, is not a pizza you drive halfway across town for—nor into the wilds of Deep Ellum, where, despite gloomy reports of a fading ghost-town atmosphere, Tarantino’s is packing them in, especially on weekends, when it’s been SRO at the restaurant and its adjacent bar, the Puppet Lounge.
This reality is not new to the Tarantinos. They used to say gloomy things about Exposition Park, too, where their last restaurant was located in the late ’90s. It was in the old State Bar space, hallowed ground for Dallas’ first wave of post-punk hipsters. Some of those folks have since grown into diners, and now Peter is there practically every night, providing them a setting to reclaim the magic.
Not surprisingly, Peter is drawn to downtrodden locations. He can’t resist the challenge. The old Deep Ellum Cafe space, with its prized patio in back, is almost too good. The interior radiates golden warmth, but the defining element is the series of massive photo-realistic paintings by artist Robert Yarber that depict crowds at some supper club from the past. Perfect for Tarantino’s, the paintings speak of big cities, big band music, and sophistication, with a wistful nostalgia at their very center. They become a blueprint: this is what you will be tonight.
The food feels nostalgic, too, but with enough nouvelle twists to rescue it from kitsch, executed with a combination of proficiency and an unstudied home-cooked touch that can be immensely satisfying.
A robust dish called, simply, “beef,” starred a juicy little steak, with a polenta cake made of corn and carrot, ladled over with sautéed wild mushrooms in a vinegary jus.
The menu groups pastas by color. Black squid-ink linguine and clams came with a rich sauce whose ingredients included scallops, of all things. Yellow pasta evoked the flavors of risotto Milanese, with rice-like orzo and shrimp in a saffron-shrimp broth. Mac and cheese mixed little seashell pasta with Italian cheeses and toasted bread crumbs.
Goat cheese panna cotta was a pure, pristine treat, with its stark white color and delicate texture on the tongue. At the other end of the spectrum lay crab cakes—on the menu, the dish is simply called “crab”—transformed into a laughably over-the-top experience: a cake containing crab and smoked trout, surrounded by king crab claws, and topped with a scoop of crab salad. Enough crab for you?
Caesar salad had been reconfigured, as well, with the dressing refashioned into a Caesar-hummus dip, and whole Romaine leaves standing in as chips—novel if somewhat soggy.
Aside from its lack of pretension, Tarantino’s food also offered fine value, with per-person tariff averaging about $45, including wine, dessert, and coffee. Peter imparts another favorite quote: “I guess it was Confucius who said that it’s not so much the end result, it’s the journey.” True, double true—but the end result is really quite nice. 2708 Elm St. 214-651-0500. $$-$$$.
Update: Tarantino’s Deep Ellum has closed.