Partenope Ristorante Brings Neapolitan Simplicity to Dallas
The guiding principle of Partenope Ristorante in Dallas is simplicity.
Open since September, Partenope serves Neapolitan food, which, says owner Dino Santonicola, is mostly basic dishes with maybe four or five ingredients “including the salt.”
Santonicola, who grew up in the Spanish quarter of Naples, Italy, owns the restaurant with his wife Megan, who has been a staple of the Dallas dining scene since 1999.
Dino and Megan met in 2011 when they were both working at another Dallas restaurant called Cane Rosso, where he was the chef and she was the general manager. They married in 2015 and now have two children aged three and two.
The duo travels to Italy every year to see Dino’s family, and about 18 months ago they decided they wanted to bring this style of food to Dallas, where there are no other Neapolitan restaurants, besides a pizzeria.
“We wanted an authentic place and that’s not as easy as you think,” Dino says. “It was important that it feel the same as in Italy. It’s about the food but also about the experience, the feeling.”
And, opening your own restaurant is a different story to helping operate someone else’s. “We’re used to having a team but this was just Dino and I,” Megan says. She went to school for hotel and restaurant management in the 1990s, and used outside help where needed in the process of Partenope’s opening.
Megan designed the restaurant and her goal was to have it feel like cozy and warm like a living room “so you can actually relax, even if you’re having a business dinner,” she says.
For the design, Megan started with the pizza oven. It was designed by Dino and built in Italy, and is covered by tiles hand-painted by nuns. “It’s the first thing you see as you walk into the dining room,” she says.
Besides that, she says, comfort was her main goal. When the Santonicolas visit family in Naples, it’s not unusual to sit for six hours around the dinner table, and that’s what the couple wanted to recreate.
She left Dino to the food and created the beverage lists herself, and collaborated with an interior designer friend on the décor. She hired a PR firm and a branding agency. The latter, she says, “helped us name the restaurant and find our brand truths and our colors, our logo. We wanted it to be right from the beginning and it’s important to do branding early in the process.”
The biggest challenges, she says, have been finding staff and picking the name of the restaurant, because that can’t be changed.
Selecting the Partenope name was important. It was the original name of Naples and Partenope was a mythical siren whose tears filled the Bay of Naples. Even though the name’s usually mispronounced—the last “e” is emphasized—the Santonicolas are still happy with the name. “We knew it would be that way and it adds to our story and gives us something to connect with the customers about," Megan says.
Partenope’s food is classic Neapolitan. It features dishes from central to Southern Italy, with olive oil and tomatoes as the base for almost everything and lots of slow cooked dishes like ragùs, stews, and braised meats. “It’s very simple but it’s done well,” Dino says.
And the food is carefully sourced, using local vendors as much as possible. The sausages come from a Dallas market, and a nearby cheese shop makes the restaurant’s goat cheese and smoked mozzarella. The neighborhood Palmieri Café, a Southern Italian coffee shop that roasts its own beans, provides beans for the traditional Caffé Napolitano the restaurant serves.
This Naples drink is a show stopper, and the Santonicolas purchased the coffee pots from Italy to serve this. It’s a flip coffee, served tableside, where it sits for a minute, before customers pour it out. “The water is sweetened so it’s a way to end your meal with something sweet and a kick in the teeth with some coffee,” says Megan. “It’s a great presentation and once one goes out, everyone asks what it is.”
Food-wise, at lunch, pizza dominates the menu. And it’s Neapolitan. That means it has a super thin base.
Partenope offers 12 types, with the Montenara outselling all others. In 2012 Dino won the gold medal at the Pizza Olympics in Naples for this pizza, which features a flash-fried then baked crust, topped with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil.
At dinner, pasta dishes and entrees do better, though pizza still sells well. Pasta dishes include Timballetto di Melanze (eggplant filled with bucatini, tomato sauce, mozzarella, beef, sausage and boiled egg); and ragù Napolitano (available only on Sunday and Monday, because it’s only served on Sundays in Naples, having cooked for 24 hours, starting on Saturday). This dish features paccheri (tube pasta) and slow-cooked tomato ragù with pork and beef.
Most important was that the food be authentic, Megan says. “There’s a lot of misconception about Italian food. They don’t put a lot of garlic in things – they actually use it very sparingly.” She also wanted to show American diners that Italian food isn’t full of cheese. And, it’s important that the food cook slowly and be prepared as a labor of love.
A touch of history
The most challenging part of opening Partenope was the location. The Santonicolas fell in love with the 4,000-square-foot historic Titche-Goettinger building for both its European feel—it’s made of stone and has big glass windows and intricate details—and its downtown location.
The trouble was, a historic building comes with layer upon layer of permitting “and everyone has a different opinion,” Megan says. “That was a huge part of the process and we still don’t have a sign outside because there’s so much discussion about how and where we can hang it.”
She started the process for the signs—which will actually be awnings featuring the Partenope name—in April and is now hoping to have them approved by January.
“In a new building or in a less historic part of town, it would have taken four weeks,” she says, wishing she’d started even earlier than April. “We knew there would be issues with a historic building but we thought it would be plumbing not awnings.”