In downtown Dallas, 400 Gradi—with an Aussie founder and a flagship in Adelaide—is a buzzy place, perfect for solo dining and people-watching or a party. Classy, and urbane, the three-continent collaboration has cosmopolitan vibes to spare. The question is where it goes with all that pedigree.
Eleven years ago, founder Johnny Di Francesco opened the first 400 Gradi in Australia as a sprawling modern Italian restaurant with pH levels in the pizza-making water that replicate those in Naples. (He sports a distinctly Down-Under accent, but the Italian patronym betrays roots in the boot, and 400 Gradi is buttressed by relationships with Italian producers—tomatoes from Puglia, flour from a specific mill.) Our branch’s patio, with its fire pits, feels very Dallas, but the cavernous space, with one room an imposing grey concrete barrel vault, is intended to evoke Italian churches. You could get lost in here. I found it was at its best when I kept things simple.
I was curious to see the update of vitello tonnato that layered slices of veal and seared sesame-crusted ahi tuna with cross-section medallions of tangy caper berries and dollops of anchovy mayonnaise instead of the usual stodgy puree of poached tuna and mayo.
In bucatini carbonara, you can love the creamy simplicity of luxurious egg yolk, the lashing amount of black pepper, and the guanciale, whose flavor comes to you first—umami pops of deep, animal intensity. Or the rigatoni with rich pork belly ragu, shaved ricotta salata, and eggplant that had drunk up a bit too much oil to be considered Spartan. Regardless, pastas get no unnecessary frills, just simple ingredients done right. You feel this in the pizza Napolitana, too. Anyone who adores anchovies will find them here, with San Marzano tomatoes, white clouds of milky fior di latte, and a few briny, bruise-colored olives. A quattro formaggi pizza’s star is gorgonzola. The rim is thin, the dough long-fermented. With leopard spots of char and the occasional burnt bubbles, they emerge from one of the two imported wood-burning ovens.
To drink, people reach for wines from the West Coast or Australia, or a cocktail with gin, limoncello, lemon, pistachio orgeat, and amaretto—a silly, improbable-sounding drink like a Mai Thai that’s actually startlingly delicious.
As far as entrees go, results were more mixed. A filet of branzino bathed in a soft, ethereal velouté, like a chilled honeydew melon soup. On the other hand, I didn’t see why I needed corn purée under my scallop along with truffle dust and lime gel. Elements like these felt part of an unnecessarily cosmopolitan vibe. Those scallops came on their white shells, pearlescent and glowing on a black plate over rock salt. So much visual play. A dessert’s gianduja-style mousse jumped through hoops involving tangerine sauce and cacao “dirt.” Elements can seem to be dueling with each other. So, contrast this with a meal that ended much more pleasantly and unfussily with a scoop of strawberry-mascarpone gelato whose texture was utterly perfect.
The best is probably not to try too hard, as the Italians would say. Go back to folding your pizza slices, talking, gesturing, doing what you do downtown.