SHINING SEA: Grilled swordfish with roasted fennel, blistered tomatoes, and Kalamata olives showcases Mediterranean flavors. Photo by Kevin Marple

Restaurant Review: Americano

Its casual Italian is worth a trip downtown, if you can tolerate the noise.

From inside the bathroom, down a short hall and behind a closed door, the din from the dining room registered as a dull roar. Beyond, the interior of The Joule Hotel’s new, retro-cool restaurant, Americano, seemed designed with everything but the diner’s comfort in mind. In the room’s moody green glow, unadorned plywood alcoves annihilated auditory comfort; ditto a concrete floor. Servers threaded their way through tightly packed tables. From where I stood, the clamor of the Saturday crowd rivaled a sports arena’s. This, I thought, must be some level of hell.

Americano was conceived as a laid-back younger sibling to the by now well-established CBD Provisions. Its casual Italian fare is conducive to the atmosphere the team envisioned, an atmosphere encapsulated by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita vision of 1960s Rome, pulsing with the tumultuous, nonchalant energy of an intoxicating, hip cafe culture. “Of course, as Americans, that’s a very romantic idea we have of that era of Italian culture, of fancy-free living,” says general manager Justin Fields. “Loose, fun, loud.” 

(Photo by Kevin Marple) You won't have to go far to find a pop of color. Americano is located within The Joule. Photo by Kevin Marple
The Saturday-night scene corresponds too well. A white stretch limo idled at a careless angle in the valet lane, clogging traffic on Main Street. Cameras flashed as though a swarm of paparazzi was amid the chic, sleek crowd. Meanwhile, the pizza that came to our table, glinting eerily with reflections from televisions that hovered in what might otherwise be an intimate, windowed alcove, failed to raise our pulse. The meal’s culminating apple crostada, which could have been artful and simple, was more reminiscent of a McDonald’s hand-held pie, its lifeless filling mashed and oversweet. 

And that noise! Is it sadism or masochism, or both, that has made cacophony an accepted accessory to dining? At times that night I felt I couldn’t taste the food for the racket.

But this was a story that evolved in vignettes. After the tumult, a quieter dawn. In tranquility, I recollected the evening, replayed the dishes. Artichokes had come as crispy constellations of fried petals around tender hearts, with a light, lemony aioli. Arancini, fried rice balls, were a glorious contrast of textures—crispy outside, molten inside, and laced with porcini mushrooms. The aroma of fresh pesto stopped me mid-sentence as the plate was set down. Butternut squash tortellini were distractingly al dente, but also beautifully plated with shards of crispy speck, dabs of ricotta, and a pumpkin-seed pesto, fabulous in texture and alive with herbs.

“Italy has always been one of my countries of passion,” says chef Matt Ford, who was married in Rome.

This was not food for indiscriminate masses. Stripped of the Babel, perhaps this was the real face of the food. Executive chef Matt Ford, whose fine-dining pedigree includes work as sous chef at Tom Colicchio’s Craft Dallas, was married in Rome. “Italy has always been one of my countries of passion,” he says. “I’m absolutely in love with the wine and food.” 

His menu uses all of Italy as a palette, and his approach to ingredients and flavors is refreshingly down-to-earth. Starters give you quick, classic, well-priced snapshots: fried chickpeas accented with rosemary; olives with fennel pollen.

In the best tradition of rustic Italian cooking, he lets quality ingredients do good work. Castelvetrano olives are stuffed with Calabrian chile sausage and fried into a snack that is one of the best showcases I’ve had for their butteriness. Sunchoke nubs, steamed until tender then lightly fried and accented with salsa verde (I would have loved more of its parsley freshness), were allowed to be wonderfully earthy. House-made pastas are unpretentiously presented. Kale and mushroom lasagna, a stack of tender noodles layered with ricotta and bathing in a San Marzano tomato sauce, was deliciously endearing, if no looker.

House pizzas include one with pumpkin blossom, basil, preserved Meyer lemon, and ricotta. Photo by Kevin Marple
At times, I questioned uninspired add-ons—nearly carbonized bits of pancetta rattled aimlessly around a plate; undercooked Brussels sprouts raised nothing but ire for the poor crucifer. But just as often, dishes were integrated wholes that showed Ford’s ease in the casual Italian medium. You felt the full force of intelligent pairings delivered with aplomb and no unnecessary fanfare.  

Swordfish was magnificently set off by blistered tomatoes with warm notes of cinnamon, roasted fennel, and the briny brashness of Kalamata olives. Semi-boneless quail was elevated just enough with a stuffing of fennel and raisins and a sash of pancetta. A glorious salad of shaved yellow, white, and purple cauliflower was dressed simply in lemon juice and good Italian olive oil and strewn with pistachios and golden raisins, its complexity coming from color and a sneaky dash of heat.

The bar has 10 wines and two cocktails on tap and a full list of Italian amari. Photo by Kevin Marple
One evening I ordered a pizza to go and skipped back to my car with the creation, its crust chewy and crisp, its top garnished with pumpkin blossoms, basil, preserved Meyer lemon, and mozzarella over a layer of soft ricotta. It was like a kiss from a Botticelli angel. The kitchen’s stone-lined gas pizza oven delivers more consistent if less dramatic results than wood-burning—not an option here, given the hotel’s internal flue. And the crust, made using water with the highest level of minerality and fermented over two to three days for flavor, is uniformly good. (They also use the dough for flatbreads and grissini.) But it’s crust worthy of more reliable toppings. I love that you can top any pizza with a farm egg, a practice that takes me straight to Italy. But many lacked balance and proportion. Fontina barely moistened the desolate, lunar landscape of a purported four-mushroom pizza. Diced potatoes sat awkwardly atop Taleggio and guanciale, as though awaiting further instructions. (And it’s hard to believe that the pastry kitchen that turned out a syrupy pine nut tart sporting a nonsensical golf ball of milk chocolate mousse also imagined the simple, brilliant semifreddo with sour cherry agrodulce and spears of charred house bread.)

Lemon was the only light note in an incredibly rich osso bucco my table shared three ways. A marrow bone set in the center held a tiny spoon for scooping, but the marrow had already melted into the rich embrace of the Parmesan risotto to which garlic chips gave a mellow, earthy depth. It was delicious but decadent. The dish uses beef shanks rather than veal, a choice that reflects price-point considerations. “That’s one of the problems that Charlie Palmer had in this space,” Ford says. “It became a destination place just for special occasions. If I source nice veal, it would have put that dish over the $30 range.” The meat reflects the often not-alluded-to quality of the sourcing (it’s all-natural 44 Farms Texas beef). It also makes for an undeniably less tender dish.

On a quieter night, the plywood seems friendlier. Accents of red and white are funky and fun. A sound-absorbing wall has been installed to combat the din (I noted no difference). This is not the place for an intimate date, despite votive candles set between couples sharing a plate of pappardelle Bolognese. It’s less accordion music, more shutter click, visions flashed across the retina at 24 frames per second.

The wine list is Italian, with Italian varietal cameos from Texas and California. Don’t go looking for a pinot noir. Instead, try the Tuscan Sangiovese or full-bodied Nero d’Avola from Sicily. Full bottles include less common varietals like Sagrantino. At the bar, where the staff seems adept at lip-reading, they will lead you intelligently through the registers of cocktails that feature the full panoply of Italian bitters. The Neroli Negroni on tap is assertively bitter with Rosso vermouth and Campari and aromatic from gin and orange-blossom essence. Whiskey drinkers will appreciate the smokiness of the Little Italy, which dials back the bitterness, though its Cynar (an artichoke-based liqueur) still numbs the lips. Fans of an easier cocktail will find solace in the Biscotti Bourbon or the sweet, refreshing Orzata Limonata the bartenders are fond of recommending. But Dallas seems ready for the more challenging bitter flavors so well represented on the dessert menu’s list of amari. 

On my last visit, a woman asked the server to pull down the bottle of Cynar from the long bar where spigots also dispense the 10 wines on tap. “It smells like lime and cactus mixed together,” she said. A perfect description, though it’s hard to say whether anyone heard it.

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