Almost exactly a year ago, Fort Worth chef Marcus Paslay appeared on “CBS This Morning’s” Saturday “The Dish” cooking segment, and showed the country a glimpse of what he’s been doing in Fort Worth for the past three years at his popular Clay Pigeon restaurant.
You couldn’t help but root for the likable, low-key Paslay, whose scratch-made food looked spectacular on TV — the whole rack of spice-encrusted lamb seemed to leap into my living room — and when he offered with whom he’d like to share a meal most (his wife, and legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer), you realized that he’s also 1) grounded and 2) a smart dude.
It’s good to know that Paslay’s on brand at his new Piattello Italian Kitchen, a remarkably unstuffy temple of stellar food and drink (an L-shaped coffee bar serves housemade pastries daily beginning at 7 a.m.), where innovative ingredients reign but pizza and eggplant parmigiana can also be found on the menu.
Executive chef Scott Lewis (Dallas’ Sprezza, Nonna) runs the open-air kitchen, and is ably assisted by sous chefs Jen Williams (Magnolia Cheese Co., Sera) and Bria Downey (Winslow’s Wine Cafe, Bird Cafe). With this much talent, it’d be darn-near tragic if the food didn’t taste superb.
At three separate visits spread over a month, the only disappointment was that each meal had come to an end. Inside this comfortable yet modern dining space — the booth-table hybrids are at once cozy yet refined — you’re likely to find young families sharing margherita pizzas ($15); couples who’ve escaped their young families; single ladies at the bar; and older folks diving into the fried whole snapper for two ($44) with a vigor they may have thought they’d last seen in their youth.
I saw all of the above, but I relished most the focus I found in the food, from the intense-yet-subtle flavors of the on-trend beet and farro salad (mint, feta, fennel and apples — ladies-who-lunch bait, but outstanding; $12) to the daily pizza ($15-17): That day, it was Brussels sprouts-leaves and speck plus mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan and fontina, collectively debunking my working theory that the city’s best pizza could only be found at Fireside Pies (which used to be Thirteen Pies and before that, Fireside Pies).
The menu is small, and evolving, but satisfying. Simple palates might lay claim to the Caesar salad ($11) or spaghetti pomodoro ($15) but rolling the culinary dice is encouraged.
The crispy calamari ($13) is heavenly. Battered squid, tentacles and all, commingle with fried Castelvetrano olives, the plump green ones that typically divide diners into Team Olive and Team Anti-olive. I’m of the former to the extent that I ate my ration quickly, then looked to distract my friends from their portions in various unimaginative ways. Briny, salty, meaty, they took to the spicy aioli like the squid once did to water.
The arancini ($8) — interestingly, a version is also on the menu at Clay Pigeon — are hard to pass up. The three fried risotto spheres, whose crunchy crust yielded an umami mound of rice and melted fontina, were garnished with a saffron aioli and a welcomely acidic caponata.
Under the Primi heading, the strozzapretti cacio e pepe ($16), hard to pronounce but simple to devour, was al dente and toothsome, house-made twisty nubs of pasta whose self-made ridges collected the pecorino and parmigiana in a determinedly delicate manner. The red chile flakes we requested didn’t even make it onto the pasta — it was perfectly peppery as it was.
The showstopper of the evening, the whole snapper, was an eyeful, emphasis on its eyes — still intact — as well as its bones. This is how the big boys eat it, and I was lucky I was among non-squeamish eaters.
It was no big deal to debone the fish, even if its head was larger than some of the plates on our table. Fried in a rough-hewn way, the snapper was curled onto the platter, ensconced with roasted marble potatoes and garnished with lemon and a salsa verde. Eating around the random pin bones, we enjoyed the process, spearing the moist white meat onto our forks while occasionally pausing to swoon.
It reminded me of the branzino I used to eat during summer trips to Venice, where we would quietly tuck into the fish, for fear of swallowing bones if conversation arose.
At Piattello, I had to share: “Mom, it’s like the fish we used to eat in Italy.”
To which she said, quite quickly: “No, it’s better.”