‘The real deal’: How Tarantino’s Cicchetti Bar in Expo Park is keeping the family legacy alive

“The only job where you start at the top is digging a ditch,” says Joseph Peter Tarantino IV, co-owner of Tarantino’s Cicchetti Bar and Record Lounge in Dallas. After more than 50 years in the restaurant business, beginning as a bread boy and busser when he was 13 years old, he’s finally arrived at the top of his career.

Last September, he made a third attempt to revive his family’s namesake red sauce joint in Exposition Park, a neighborhood he sees as Dallas’ “last, solid, real arts district,” and a place some are exploring as an alternative to Deep Ellum.

The first rendition of Tarantino’s was at Mockingbird and Abrams, and owned by his father, Joseph Peter, and his eldest brother, Chris. But it was short-lived, closing after his father’s death in 1994.

Peter and another brother Patrick opened the second iteration of Tarantino’s, called Tarantino’s Restaurant Bar and Lounge, located in the exact same space as his current restaurant.

Unlike Peter, both of his brothers went to culinary school, but Peter is “just a good, old school cook,” whose only problem is being a little heavy-handed with the olive oil, black pepper, and portion sizes, he says. He describes his father and mother as legendary Sicilian cooks who worked together in the kitchen on weekends making Sunday gravy and rolling out approximately 200 meatballs to feed their large family after mass. There was never a need for them to go out to eat, he says.

Before the second Tarantino’s in Expo Park sold in 2001 to become the Meridian Room, Texas Monthly food critic, Patricia Sharpe, called it “one of Dallas’ artier dining venues’’ with a “menu that does not shrink from extremes.” The same can accurately be said for Tarantino’s “fourth incarnation,” as co-owner Isaac Davies describes it.

Davies is a mural artist who worked as a server when Peter opened the third Tarantino’s in Deep Ellum in 2005, before it became a “war zone” that led to the restaurant’s shuttering a few years later. Peter describes the number of restaurants that closed or moved from Deep Ellum in 2008 as a “mass exodus.”

Back in its longest-running space, Davies keeps the second Tarantino’s artsy touches as the interior designer who curates rotating, locally-made artwork that’s all for sale. He also schedules DJs who still spin vinyl records, a format that experienced a major resurgence during the pandemic. Fittingly, diners are invited to bring their personal records to play on some nights — so long as there’s no profanity, and the music keeps with the restaurant’s mission to feel like a lounge and “make your blood pressure go down,” Davies says.

Owner Peter Tarantino of Tarantino's Cicchetti BarOwner Peter Tarantino of Tarantino’s Cicchetti Bar

(Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)

Just as when Sharpe visited in 1998, the menu at Tarantino’s still does not shrink from extremes. About 75% of it is vegetarian. “Italian people love vegetables, and we’re very serious about it,” Peter says. But there’s also bacon-wrapped meatball meatloaf, something he saw on a TV cooking show and decided to replicate. “We have something for everybody.”

The menu keeps pace with the small plate trend, serving cicchetti, meaning “small snack” in Italian. The generous and homey dishes are designed for quick, “get in and get out” dinners before a show at the Music Hall in Fair Park. Alternatively, diners can spend time with daily, seasonally-inspired specials passed down from Peter’s family.

Family recipes are on the regular menu, too, like lentils with ditalini pasta that come from Peter’s Aunt Selena, who had a long-running restaurant in Tampa, Fla., where Peter had his first job. He now has her recipe book that contains no measurements.

And the melt-in-your-mouth meatballs — made with veal, beef, and pork — are Peter’s mother’s recipe. She was a Giacona, a wine merchant family from Palermo known for good cooking, Peter says. They immigrated to avoid the Black Hand Society, also known as the mafia, but they still had incidents once they arrived in New Orleans. The Giaconas defended themselves and were never the oppressors, according to Peter.

Other menu highlights include Mom’s four cheese lasagna, his brother Patrick’s ravioli nero with gorgonzola cream sauce and toasted pistachios, and don’t skip the linguine and clams that zing with the simple yet palpable flavors of olive oil and garlic. The spicy Italian cheese grits, Peter’s version of polenta, make a nice accompaniment to meatballs that come cloaked in a sheath of melted mozzarella. Fresh pasta comes from Fresh Pasta Delights in Dallas, and the sweet Italian sausage comes from Jimmy’s Food Store.

As Peter says, “You’re going to get the real deal here.”

The last omicron wave, along with building repairs and labor shortages, have taken a toll on Tarantino’s since it opened in September of 2021. Hardships forced Peter to post a GoFundMe last winter to which someone commented, “When is this dude going to realize it’s over?”

Peter says, “I may be stubborn, sadistic, selfish, or stupid, but the thought of going back to work for someone else in this business is a nightmare.” He summarizes the other places he’s cooked as “hell.”

But Tarantino’s has something special. As Peter says, “There’s a foundation here — a real foundation, and it’s got a lot of substance to it. And, it’s not pretentious.”

“This whole place is a work of art.”

Tarantino’s Cicchetti Bar is located at 3611 Parry Ave., Dallas. To stay updated on weekly events at Tarantino’s, check the Facebook page.

Tarantino's Cicchetti Bar features a record lounge including vintage records.Tarantino’s Cicchetti Bar features a record lounge including vintage records.

(Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)

Tarantino's Cicchetti Bar is located across from Fair Park.Tarantino’s Cicchetti Bar is located across from Fair Park.

(Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)

Classic Italian lentils with ditalini pasta are available at Tarantino's.Classic Italian lentils with ditalini pasta are available at Tarantino’s.

(Allison Slomowitz / Special Contributor)