Carbone’s is back. Oops: we’re not supposed to use that name anymore.
The beloved Italian-American restaurant that long sat on the corner of Oak Lawn and Wycliff Avenues was named for Angelo Carbone, restaurateur Julian Barsotti’s great-grandfather, and the family business Angelo founded in New Jersey. And then came the big-money juggernaut: Carbone, a high-dollar New York restaurant beloved by celebrities and named after its chef, Mario Carbone. Carbone opened just two miles away from Carbone’s, on the same road. Chaos ensued. Then came the lawsuit: Dallas’ David sued New York’s Goliath.
When I spoke to a legal expert near the beginning of that case, he suggested that the suit would end with a settlement, somebody getting paid to change their name. He supposed that the interloper might change its name to something like “New York Carbone.” Instead the opposite happened: the Dallas original changed its name to Barsotti’s.
Now, what about that legal settlement? Well, the terms are confidential, but I’ll put three facts here in close proximity and you can draw your own conclusions. First fact: the parent company of Carbone, Major Food Group, is an enormously successful national group backed by wealthy people. Second fact: Barsotti’s has been lavishly remodeled, and its kitchen is now equipped to serve a bigger menu than before. Third fact: Barsotti’s attorney told the Dallas Morning News, “New York Carbone is assisting Julian in opening his new, elevated family Italian concept.” What a mystery!
Enough backstory. If you just want to go back to your favorite lasagna joint, I have good news: it is still as it was.
Barsotti’s now has some deluxe finishes it did not have before, like the wallpaper in the bathroom hallway, the stamped tin ceiling, and the comfortable, old-school bar that curves around the front of the kitchen. Behind the bar, a picture frame contains an old Carbone’s T-shirt autographed by Tony Bennett. This space has gone from a stark one to an inviting midcentury throwback. In fact, with the new darker hues and longer menu, Barsotti’s more closely resembles one of its owner’s more upscale restaurants, Fachini.
Last week, I stopped by and sampled the new, longer menu. The classics are unchanged: meaty lasagna that comes in a pool of rich tomato sauce and cheese; spaghetti with big, shaggy meatballs; and the best tortellini alla vodka in town. In fact, when the vodka sauce dish hit our table, my table of four started immediately snagging tortellini with our forks, in too much of a rush to bother with sharing plates. Creamy, acidic, rich, the vodka sauce has the taste of something that’s been in a pot simmering all afternoon.
The pasta list includes a few newcomers. Linguine with clams has gotten a promotion from special to full-time feature, available with red or white sauce (you should choose white, of course). Veal parmesan is now joined by veal piccata, a crisp schnitzel topped with a ladleful of lemon-shallot-caper-parsley sauce, with a side of caper-loaded noodles.
Not everything is up to the old restaurant’s standards. I don’t know if our lasagna portion was really smaller than before, but it felt that way. Maybe it’s my fault for sharing my food. And the calamari, with an admirable mix of tiny squid and standard rings, was a big miss: too crunchy to have much seafood flavor at all.
Service staff especially seemed unprepared for the pent-up love diners were unleashing after the nearly four-month closure for remodeling. A waiter arrived, served an appetizer we hadn’t ordered, and rushed away before we could ask what it was. (We got to keep it, so I can tell you that the crab claws are delicious.) Meanwhile, details were very hazy indeed about the cocktail list: the menu just lists names, and not every employee knows what the names mean. I drank a Fra Diavolo, about which the only thing my server knew was that it would be spicy. I can add that it’s light in color and tastes of cucumber.
Remember, though, I visited in only the second week, so this is just a preliminary postcard. The restaurant is just getting back into its usual groove.
Still, you can’t help thinking about how Car—sorry, Barsotti’s compares to its cross-town ex-namesake. New York’s Carbone also serves a mean bowl of pasta with vodka sauce, spicier and more oniony. But I can’t help feeling like the Barsotti’s bowl offers better value: the sauce is still eat-with-a-spoon good and the tortellini is filled with little pinches of meat, for $26 instead of $34. And the house-made pasta dough at Barsotti’s is a delight.
Of course, at that other spot, you’re paying for the ostentatious dinner theater element of being wined and dined by costumed, ingratiating servers who deliver free antipasti and whisper rumors about off-menu items. At Barsotti’s, you come because you like a good lasagna. There’s a place for both. And it’s a darn good thing that our place, the local place, is back in action.
Barsotti’s Fine Foods and Liqueurs, 4208 Oak Lawn Ave.