“That place is in a cursed spot, you know,” said my friend who lives in Northeast Tarrant County. “It’s been, like, four things.”
Who among us hasn’t played this game, obsessing about a restaurant’s location, bantering about whether or not it will “make it,” and if it’s prognosis negative, what next should go there.
For anyone wondering about Ristorante Mulino, a month-plus-old restaurant on the cusp of where Keller meets Southlake, go worry about something else.
The tiny Italian restaurant, from the experienced hands of Nino Rata — just removed from 30 years in Manhattan, where he managed restaurants in Little Italy and worked at some of the industry’s best-known haunts — is impressive just weeks in. The only possible problem? People have already noticed.
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There are perhaps 20 tables inside the dining room, and despite an 8 p.m. reservation, we waited at the door for one to clear.
People were packed inside, appropriately enough, like sardines. Similarly, the noise level was approaching something out of “Tony N’ Tina’s Wedding.”
No one likes a wait, especially with a reservation, but we were OK with it because of the complementary rosemary bread, thinner than traditional focaccia and not unlike a naked pizza. It had the requisite fragrant notes, and olive oil kissed our fingers as if to say: “There is more where this came from.”
At one point, I almost dropped our bottle of wine (the restaurant is currently BYOB) but recovered quickly to eat another piece of bread.
An employee manned the entrance of the Naples, Italy-made pizza oven tossing dough, and I seized on the moment as a teaching lesson.
“Look, guys, have you ever seen someone throw dough like this?” I asked my kids, it turns out rather rhetorically. Someone had told them to leave their tablets at home so their baseline mood read unimpressed.
But the dough-thrower was happy for the company, pointing to the nearly empty tray of rosemary bread.
“Help yourself, I’m making more,” he said, pointing out the obvious, to my elation.
Soon, we found ourselves squeezing into a table meant more for five than seven. And space only got more compromised when two appetizers, both on large plates, were delivered.
Elegantly presented, the chargrilled octopus ($13) was crowned with basil and anointed with a trio of sauces: pureed cannellini beans, pureed red peppers and balsamic-intensified garlic. Separated by the condiments, the mollusk looked not unlike a starfish, its crust smoky and ever-so-slightly crunchy, the fish itself chewy but not overly so.
Summer is meant for Caprese salads, and this season, I’ve suffered from a near-infatuation with burrata. The creamy cousin of mozzarella is irresistible at room temp, served here straight outta Campania, atop a forest of prosciutto, which was salty and thinly sliced.
It turned out the two appetizers were further meant to be enjoyed together, since the burrata platter lacked any type of sauce. No pesto or oil and vinegar here — but it was all resolved when we added some of the octopus’ balsamic and garlic reduction.
The unadorned trend curiously continued with the entrees. The spaghettini carbonara ($13) and fettuccine Alfredo ($13) could have passed as “before” pictures in a makeover. Monochromatically yellow (except for the carbonara’s dots of pancetta), the two dishes lacked Instagram punch but did deliver on the most important thing —taste.
Both pastas, made in-house, were cooked al dente, swimming in nuanced notes of nutmeg (Alfredo) and salt (carbonara).
Unfortunately, the risotto fungetti ($16), a tired-looking bowl of brown-colored fare, was a miss. The arborio rice was overcooked and under-salted, yielding a mushy meal for which the woodsy mushrooms could not compensate.
The risotto was a blip. “Mulino,” which means “mill,” earns its namesake keep with some outstanding pizzas. The extensive menu features 14-inch red- or white-sauced offerings with interesting ingredients like Italian speck and broccoli rabe.
But the simple four cheese ($13) with its pillowy, dexterous crust was absurdly wonderful. Fresh mozzarella, provolone, Parmigiana and gorgonzola — plus a drizzle of honey — melted into near-obscene harmony.
Because all of its desserts are made in-house, it would have been illegal for us not to have ordered the tiramisu ($6). Thick whipped cream, delicate lady fingers and cocoa powder conspired for a perfect meal-ender.
But … it wasn’t. Nino, resolutely chagrined regarding our wait for a table, had a surprise in mind in the form of a Nutella pizza, topped with strawberries and powdered sugar — all of which is actually illegal if not consumed within five minutes.
We ate every slice of the sweet pie, then gathered at the door. The men were allowed to shake Nino’s hand. My lady friend and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.
Ristorante Mulino is not perfect, but give it just a bit more time. It already stands out, thanks to a sly mix of charm and outsize talent, both of which know no bounds.