Tiny Italy, or Life After J&J’s Pizza

Tiny Italy, or Life After J&J’s Pizza

By Rob Curran

Welcome to Tiny Italy…also known as Honey, I Shrunk Little Italy and Slapped it Smack Dab in the Middle of Denton, Texas. 

Stroll onto the square heading north from Elm Street, where you will have parked in one of the spots outside the burnt-out husk of Gnome Cones. What kind of messed up mobster fire-bombs a novelty frozen cone place? You might well ask. Hey, this is Denton. Even our soprano-voiced gnomes have beef. During this musing, you will have reached the northwest corner of the square. On your left, you will see Two Gentlemen of Verona, and next to that, Graffiti Pasta. Let’s do dessert first, shall we? As you will learn in future editions of Hottestplate.com, we are huge fans of Beth Marie’s here. Beth Marie’s gives you that down-home, countrified feel-good vibe. The gelato is so good at Two Gentlemen of Verona that it will probably result in a critical re-evaluation of the Shakespeare play, and its return to the repertoires of major, ice cream curious theatres worldwide. As soon as you walk in, the experience is sleek and Italianate, the décor, color scheme and ice cream practically screaming pastel sophistication. The gelato is smooth, creamy heaven. They also have absurdly expensive chocolate treats that I’m saving up for because they look as great or greater than the ice cream. Gelato, in my book is full-on ice cream. It might sound like some kind of organic, European, sugar-free health food that hipsters con their children with, but, having made it from scratch on Nonna’s gelato machine, I can assure you, it’s every bit as sugary, sinful and dairy-laden as the real thing. Gelato is not ice cream lite, ice cream is gelato lite. That fluffiness is straight-up egg yolk.

Graffiti Pasta had a tough act to follow in Denton’s beloved J&J’s pizza. J&J’s was Denton’s kind of Italy. J&J's pizza was the most quintessential Denton dish of them all – a crusty curiousity with distant Italian roots, a little charred around the edges, but with a sweet, saucy center: basically, your average Dentonite. For décor, meanwhile, think the graffitied rest room of a Lower Manhattan dive bar. All that was missing was the cracked cistern and bacony whiff of urine. In a masterstroke of design that exposes the owners’ Italian roots, Graffiti Pasta rolled with the J&J’s vibe, instead of fumigating its memory. Rather than painting over the graffiti upstairs, they made graffiti  the theme. Clearest indication that they get it? The new management maintained the Ol’ Dirty Basement, the second coolest thing on the planet to use the ODB acronym. The ODB is an all-moshpit venue that’s the Cavern of Denton’s music scene. 

The food – no shade on J&J’s – has been elevated under the new ownership. It’s a cliché to say that dishes in the most popular and well-established ethnic food in the U.S., (I’m thinking Mexican, Chinese and Italian) have diverged from the actual basis of those dishes in the Old Countries. We are so many generations deep into Italian food in the U.S. by now that there’s two-way traffic in the exchange between Italian-American and Italian-Italian cooking traditions, much to the advantage of both. Graffiti Pasta (and Tiny Italy as a whole) is a fine example of this micro trend. Italian-American food, like Tex-Mex, is the kind where the layers of cheese come with their own cheese-toppings. Denton already has a great exemplar of this old-school, comfort-food Italy-via-The-Waltons’-Farm joint in the form of Giusseppe’s on Locust Street, a short walk from the new Tiny Italy. Typically, Italian-American pastas are a little on the soft side, and the sauces a bit blunt. Graffiti Pasta applies modern Italian thinking on spaghetti texture and sauce flavoring to the cheese-rich Italy of the middle American imagination. That’s how you get to the baked ziti, with its thick crispy mozzarella, shielding a San Marzano zinger of a sauce. The creamy and vegetarian pastas are top notch. I can’t get away from Graffiti’s red-and-cheese dishes, though. The lasagna is another perfect mouth duel between cheese and tomato tangs. The starters, garlic dough balls and, my favorite, the bruschetta, are a (tiny) bit overpriced but excellent. 

The next stop on your tour of Tiny Italy is a couple of blocks south on Elm. In an unassuming strip mall, which in true Texan fashion is 98% parking lot and 2% actual thing, you can say  hello to one of the great Italian-American delis of all time: Di Abruzzo Italian Market. This gem would do a brisk chicken-parm sub business in the deepest Southside of Chicago; this place would shift pastrami sandwiches on the most mobbed-up street corner of Tony Soprano’s New Jersey; hell, Di Abruzzo would hold its own in a pizza war in Goodfella’s era South Brooklyn. I thought I’d never taste cannoli like that one place in Bayonne that my Bayonne friend Sam Favate used to bring to the office in Jersey City. Another bakery in West New York, New Jersey, came close enough that I very nearly purchased an apartment around the corner from the store purely on the strength of that cannoli. When I moved here from the New York area, I left a little piece of my heart in those cannoli places. I tried to move on, tried to forget the dessert ever existed. Lo and behold! Di Abruzzo, of Tiny Italy, Denton, could take on either in the cannoli World Series. The pastry is crispy but still recognizably pastry, unlike the ice cream-cone consistency strunzo the imitators serve. The cream is as thick and heavy and sweet as cream can possibly be without making a stomach sick. And that’s where cannoli cream needs to live.

Cannoli is only one of many inch-perfect OG Italian deli delights on offer at Di Abruzzo. I’ll be making a return visit to shop on its excellent ingredient aisle for a home-cooked Italian experience. 

I will finish this visit with a description of Di Abruzzo’s lasagna. I broke my ankle a few months back and was rendered on the couch for a week. It was touch and go. A lot of amateur orthopedic surgeons didn’t think I’d make it. I’m pretty sure I’d be Texas Toast were it not for a lasagna my friend brought me from Di Abruzzo. These things are intended for sharing, but I took it out singlehandedly. When I make lasagna, there are flecks of rough Ricotta, as if a bird had eaten my spag-bol, then regurgitated it for her chicks. Not so Di Abruzzo, the creamy white sauce is perfectly segregated from the red, and the cheese and meat are both distinct, and a seamless part of the whole.

As you step outside the third stop on Denton’s Tiny Italy, you might see a pizza truck or two fly by. One of these would be the remains of the legendary Flying Tomato, a UNT campus fixture for decades until it burned down in what some amateur pyro-forensic scientists believe was an accumulated-Hot Rocks conflagration. (Hot Rocks, for those who don’t speak Keith Richards, are the notoriously wayward joint embers that leave dedicated hashish smokers with pock-marked tracksuits.) The other is an excellent Neapolitan-pizza truck Aglio that will soon add another brick-and-mortar location to the Tiny Italy foodopolis. 

Shoutout to Picone, the steak-serving Jersey-style joint that's reportedly a worthy addition to Tiny Italy. I have yet to sample, but I'm hoping it'll give me taste memories of Casa Dante, the mobbed-up restaurant where I liked to take visitors in Jersey City. The maitre de Casa walked with a limp and an ashen expression that said "maybe you don't come around asking questions bout why guys have limps...capeesh?" I once had dinner there to the accompaniment of a Frankie Valliesque cabaret crooner, and thought I was going to be gunned down when our table's plonk-fuelled heckling grew a little too audible.

(Osteria di Muro is an honorary Tiny Italy member, but it’s a little farflung over there on the other side of Carroll. Will let you know if Muro lives up to its Yelp stars once I get off the waitlist.)