The first time I visited Dante’s Italiano, I confess I was a little surprised to find the dining room nearly full. It was a Wednesday night, after all, and the location – in a dated shopping center that has been eclipsed by nearby Wakefield Commons – is hardly prime. Clearly, that hasn’t prevented people from finding their way to Dante’s in the year since it opened.
Word of mouth hasn’t hurt. Many of the restaurant’s most ardent fans are relocated New Yorkers, who have eagerly spread the word that Dante’s is the closest thing they’ve found in these parts to a taste of home.
The dining room atmosphere certainly sets the right mood. Soft lighting, cozy booths, an eclectic assortment of chairs at linen-draped tables and impressionist landscape prints on parchment walls make for a setting that is casually romantic and family-friendly. Cue Sinatra crooning in the background, and you’ve got a description that could fit any number of Italian restaurants in any city.
What sets Dante’s apart from the crowd is the presence of owner Danny Gonzalez behind the bar. A native Long Islander, Gonzalez’s career spans three decades, dating back to busing and waiting tables as a young man in Manhattan. He moved to the Triangle in 1992 to help open Margaux’s, and liked the area so much he stayed.
The affable Gonzalez has clearly made a lot of friends in the area, judging by the number of ustomers he greets by name. If he doesn’t (yet) know you, you’ll still get a warm welcoming smile from him as you’re being escorted past the bar on the way to your table.
Dante’s is his first restaurant, but Gonzalez’s experience and savvy are evident in his choice of fellow New Yorker Eddie Watson as chef.
A veteran of Italian restaurant kitchens from the original Umberto’s in Hyde Park to Cinelli’s in North Raleigh, Watson offers a menu of Italian-American classics that rarely misses the mark.
The starter list sticks to familiar territory for the most part, from fried zucchini sticks to PEI mussels steamed in a white wine broth punctuated with garlic, fresh basil and parsley. A mascarpone-stuffed portobello cap with a Grand Marnier-balsamic reduction is a mildly adventurous detour.
Personally, I’d stick to the main road and head straight for some of the best fried calamari in town. Exceptionally tender with a light breading, it’s served with a rustic, moderately spicy marinara sauce.
You don’t have to have New York roots to appreciate chef Watson’s textbook rendition of eggplant parmigiana. You do need a big appetite, though, unless you plan on taking half of it home in a doggie bag. Like most dishes here, the serving size lives up to the Italian-American restaurant tradition of more-than-ample portions.
That includes spaghetti with homemade meatballs, too, featuring hefty spheres whose size belies their delicate savor.
If you’re really lucky, you might be there on a night when the meatballs are joined by chunks of sweet Italian sausage and braised beef short rib in tomato sauce over al dente pasta, in an occasional special offering of penne alla nonna.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, grouper marechiarra – moist, expertly seared fish over angel hair pasta tossed in a light medley of tomatoes, basil and white wine – is convincing evidence that the chef’s talents are not limited to earthy, rib-sticking fare.
Dante’s brick ovens turn out a solid rendition of a New York-style pizza, available with the usual toppings as well as specialty combos such as the Parma Verdi (zucchini, sautéed red onions, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, bacon and pancetta with a sprinkling of fresh garlic and grated parmesan). The crust, which is nicely crisp and blistery at the edges, tends to be soft in the center – a little too soft for my taste, though some New Yorkers will tell you that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Disappointments are infrequent, and – like the pizza – can often be chalked up to a matter of taste. To my taste, for instance, the “hint of balsamic vinegar” in chicken scarpariello dominates the dish. And I’d have preferred the bacon wrapping in shrimp Amalfi to be crisp, not soft.
Just outside the entrance to the restaurant is another sight that will be familiar to New Yorkers: a chalkboard announcing Sunday Family Pasta Night (adults $12.95, kids $5.95), and Early Bird Specials, Tuesday-Thursday from 5-6:30 p.m.
Come to think of it, that probably had something to do with the packed dining room that Wednesday night when I visited Dante’s the first time.
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