Maybe it seems unlikely that we’d have an outpost of Italy wedged inside The Centrum on Oak Lawn. With its plant-filled atrium’s skylight spilling rays onto a tile floor, Mille Lire, which opened in 2017, resembles any other evocation of la dolce vita. And it took me, in fact, two years to notice it. But the chef, Giuliano Matarese, has a knack for summoning emotions with a highly personal take on Italian food, executed with fidelity.
He focuses on flavors not gussied up, but delivered the way they should be, Italian food with honest intensity.
Blame his Neapolitan grandmother for the exceptional quality of the dough under the oval-shaped, anchovy-laden pizza stirata Romana, draped with capers and olives. Imported flour, water, salt, and a long rise give it developed flavor. Another puff of dough rises above an earthenware dish that holds lamb meatballs tangled with strands of bitter broccoli rabe in a tomato sugo inflected with feta that is something akin to heaven. Matarese wanted to conjure the impression you get when lifting the lid on a pot of braised meatballs. He does.
Simple ingredients shine in house-made pastas. Cacio e pepe, simple and creamy, the sauce beautifully emulsified, is exactly what you would eat in Rome. The multi-layered overnight lasagna, like a slice of crêpe-cake laid sideways (and too salty, like a certain number of dishes), comes covered with what curiously resembles beef stroganoff—mushrooms and peas in a taupe-colored gravy—but is actually a Parmesan fonduta meant to reproduce lasagna’s creamy interior, while broiling recreates a lasagna’s burnished crust. These are the games that Matarese likes to play. I was mesmerized by gnocchetti Sardi, miniature, gnocchi-shaped pasta, tinted golden from Sardinian saffron, that bring together that rugged island’s flavors with house-made sausage (Matarese’s grandfather was a butcher: it’s his recipe), tomato, roasted fennel, and a lilt of fennel pollen.
The simple dishes are the hardest, though.
While the bulk of the menu reads classic and timeless, I found that dishes are often reconfigured for the season. Monkfish might come over a soft, green, sweet-pea purée, with a lemon beurre blanc as the brightness that brings harmony. In rebooted tiramisu—strawberries caught between Prosecco-doused lady fingers and mascarpone mousse—you can almost sense the sparkle. The robust wine list will take you on a tour of the numerous grapes of Italy. You leave wondering if the hefty house-made limoncello was the best part—or just a piece of the picture.
“Our job is almost a mission,” he says of being in Dallas. “Our customer is traveling a lot. Then we’ve got to help them refine this authenticity.”
Sunday supper is a favorite memory, Matarese tells me over the phone later—three dozen people gathering over his grandmother’s cooking. “Our food should be like a good wine,” he says. “For the next minute you should have this beautiful flavor on your palate. All these emotions, it creates like a color: you create this flavor picture.”
Matarese helped to open one of Charlie Palmer’s Michelin-star restaurants. Working afterward in Florida, he says he couldn’t find seasonal inspiration. He needed winter’s chill to inspire Tuscan truffle soup. That, I imagine, won’t be a problem now.