It’s a whine many of us have heard, maybe even uttered ourselves: “There are no Italian restaurants in Dallas.” Which is silly. If you factor in the suburbs and the pizza joints, there are at least 400 Italian restaurants.
But what the frowny faces long for is a place like Riccardi’s, a classy gem with good food and personable owners who greet you like friends and won’t empty your wallet.
Owners Anita and Gaetano Riccardi are hands-on and sufficiently perfectionist to effect an excellent dining experience. They are personally invested, even to the extent of eponymous dishes like veal Gaetano and Anita’s artichokes, but they’re also egoless enough to attract other good people and let them do their deals.
That includes husband-and-wife team Paula and Mike Scholz. Mike, son of veteran Dallas restaurateur Ewald Scholz, cheffed at Arthur’s for many years. Paula, who serves as hostess and manager, jokes that she came with the building. In truth, she worked at Ruggeri’s for nearly 18 years. (Ruggeri’s was the previous tenant at this spot.)
Mike’s Continental background is ideal for the Riccardis, who aren’t striving to be innovative or cutting edge. They want to do standards, including veal, chicken, pasta, and some seafood, in a light, northern Italian fashion—and do them very well. And so they have.
Mike’s expertise shone most tellingly in the soups, sauces, and dressings. Soup of the day is often a vegetable cream, such as asparagus or celery. A bowl of the asparagus held soft bites of the spear in a rich, buttery base. And a plain old house salad came alive on the plate, thanks to its nearly effervescent balsamic vinaigrette.
Procurement is a big deal here. Anita and Gaetano, who’s a native of Italy, buy top-quality goods and treat them with kid gloves. The tiny tomatoes on the antipasto Napolitano plate, for example, were perfectly ripe, with a juicy pop in the mouth when bitten. Anita attributes that to keeping the tomatoes at room temperature, not in the fridge. Also on the antipasto: olives (thoughtfully pitted), roasted red peppers, shaved prosciutto, and deferential little dabs of buffalo mozzarella.
Anita’s signature dish was carciofi Anita, an appetizer of baby artichokes, rough edges snipped away, served in a bowl of white wine, garlic, and lemon. All apologies to the fellow whose task it was to replenish the bread. Riccardi’s policy is to give you only a couple of slices at a time. There’s no waste, and the bread from top-of-the-line Empire Baking Co. is always warm and fresh. But that garlicky broth required sopping up, forcing Bread Guy to make about a million deliveries.
Gaetano’s dish was a veal entrée with prosciutto and fontina cheese; those same elements came in a chicken version called chicken rollatini. Once the rolled chicken breast was cut open, the fontina oozed onto the plate, unleashing an irresistible, savory-sweet aroma before merging with the pale, buttery Chardonnay sauce. A side of broccoflower, its florets a watercolor wash of green and pale yellow, was a nice spin on the usual veggie side.
The menu runs light on steaks and chops, so those often show up as specials. One paired mini beef tenderloins with a stuffed quail. Stuffed quail is all about the stuffing; this one was a delectable combination of Italian sausage and roughly chopped pistachios. But the tenderloins were rather thin, and thus one was cooked past the medium rare requested.
Seafood seemed good, fresh, and capably cooked, but neither the cioppino nor the seared shrimp and scallops delivered much of a zing. The cioppino had shrimp, scallops, bits of lobster, and tons of calamari—too much calamari—in a spicy tomato broth. The shrimp and scallops came with a fine risotto Milanese that tasted wonderfully of seafood broth and cream, with the rice nicely positioned between tender and firm.
Aside from the spumoni ice cream, desserts are made on the premises. The crème brûlée is said to have a vanilla kick, the tiramisu gets its usual brags, and there’s even a soufflé. Whatever. Just get the cioccolato alla bella, chocolate-pistachio cake with mocha cream. Baked in a ramekin and served hot, it will be, for the 10 minutes it takes to consume, the most meaningful relationship you’ll ever have with a dessert. Gooier than regular cake but firmer than those tired lava cakes, its rich, bittersweet darkness will cast a spell, broken only by the crunchy toasted pistachios.
For more examples of the Riccardis’ perfectionism, look to the crystal-cut water glasses, the silver chargers, the art deco flatware. Look to the frescoed walls and Sistine Chapel-esque painting on the ceiling. The Riccardis haven’t altered their stunning inheritance, the blue terrazzo floor laid down by Mediterraneo (the tenant before Ruggeri’s), as well as the lovely room dividers with wavy panes of old German glass. The waitstaff takes its cue, leaving no request unfulfilled. With no prodding, one server eagerly brought two tastes of wine to help with the selection process. Among the wines on the list are a trio of Italian wines, two whites and a red, made at the Riccardis’ own vineyard in Italy. It comes as perhaps no surprise that Anita picked the grapes herself. 2800 Routh St., Ste. 115. 214-303-0881. $$-$$$.