Road trip review: Il Sogno in San Antonio

Il Sogno
200 E. Grayson St., Suite 100 at the Pearl Brewery, San Antonio. 210-223-3900.
Hours: Breakfast 7:30 to 10 a.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 02.27.12
Il Sogno might as well mean “hero” in Italian, because it rescued us twice during trips to San Antonio.
The first was an anniversary weekend on the Riverwalk that started with a touristy lunch at John Besh’s overblown Lüke, where they brought our shrimp and grits to the table with a room-temperature flourish and then just reheated it rather than making it again. The second was a trip to see our oldest child sing at the convention center there. We battled through the hall of mirrors they call downtown parking only to have our preteen decide she was embarrassed to have us there. In both cases, Il Sogno was there to make it all right, the first time by accident, the second time by deliberate design. In Italian, Il Sogno (eel SEWN-yo) means “the dream,” and we were glad we woke up from bad ones to find refuge there.
The Dream’s also been on my mind because chef Andrew Weissman made a swing through Austin last week to accept a Star Chefs mentoring award, and his Twitter feed (@AKWeissman) would lead you to think he’s putting together the San Antonio chapter of the Kitchen Avengers. This solicitation also caught my eye: “Currently looking for a dynamic chef, pay is really good. Must understand what it means to be a chef — not just what they learned on food net.” With the neighboring Sandbar restaurant and the upcoming Luxury under his stewardship, Weissman has to staff his empire. I wonder how many times “pay is really good” has shown up in a kitchen classified.
My first trip to Il Sogno came after what we thought would be a short stroll down the Riverwalk from our hotel but turned out to be a winding march under the interstate. My own fault as a navigationally challenged tourist. The host saw our embarrassed distress and parked us at a comfortable patio table where we had one of the five best waiters I’ve ever seen. An older gent, he treated us like guests at an Italian family reunion, making sure to introduce everybody on the menu.
The introductions started with an antipasti plate built from a groaning array of dishes on a sideboard that ranged from simple roasted red peppers and marinated mushrooms to a vibrant squid salad and intoxicating eggplant caponata at five for $13. The family-style mood was tilted only by undpredictable Uncle Shrimp, who showed up needing a shower and a shave. He was vindicated by Aunt Margherita, a Neapolitan-style pizza ($15) with an expertly bubbled crust and an appreciation for the joys of tomato, basil and mozzarella. No more family metaphors, I promise.
Our waiter had to act as sommelier, too, because the full-time wine guy couldn’t be pulled away from the schmooze-fest two tables over, but he paired us with a full-fruited and nicely acidic Tuscan Vernaccia from the geographically nimble Italian wine list to go with our rich ragu of pork, pine nuts and yellow squash over pliant tagliatelle pasta ($24). Nevermind that the menu called for eggplant rather than squash, a glitch for which our guy couldn’t account. After more wine and a tiny cheese course for dessert, we were happy when the host remembered our long walk in heels (hers, not mine; this time) and called us a cab for the ride back.
My second Il Sogno inception was intentional, an indulgent lunch to salvage a cluster-clutch of a drive and to sort out the mixed feelings of a parent who’s realizing his kid is grown up enough to be embarrassed by her folks and would rather ride the bus back to Austin. This time, an Italian Frascati from Tenuta di Petra Porzia ($28) calmed our nerves with bright white fruit up front mellowing to an almond finish. It opened well with a daily special of pulled pork over polenta ($15), a dish that leaned primarily on its braising juices for flavor. I ordered that dish because our waiter failed to tell us Il Sogno’s antipasti spread was available for lunch, too. It’s neither on the menu nor displayed on the sideboard. The only way we found out about it was because our waiter took the time and trouble to explain it for the table next to us, a puzzling gaffe in service that left us ordering antipasti that didn’t arrive until after our main courses. Two of three small dishes for $10 were memorable: indulgent goat cheese with tender roasted peppers and a Brussels sprout salad that had been shredded like coleslaw and tossed with bacon. The third, a marinated seafood salad, was ruined again by shrimp that had started to turn.
We learned a little about Il Sogno besides antipasti from that table next to us. We heard that a wine bottle chandelier above us was made from bottles served during the last dinner at Le Reve, the celebrated San Antonio restaurant Weissman closed a few years back. And we learned that Weissman was working in the kitchen that afternoon, just as he was the night of our anniversary. He’s hard to miss, an intense guy with a close-shaved head who could double as a hitman in a foreign-language action film.
The main attractions of our lunch at Il Sogno started with pan-seared fish over cannellini beans ($20). I don’t remember the species, but it was firm and fleshy and cooked to smooth flakiness, perfumed by rosemary. It rested on wilted escarole that could be eaten only as whole sections because it hadn’t been liberated from the fibrous stem of its base, and it was both too slippery and tough to cut through with a fork. What sang most fluently that afternoon was housemade penne pasta in spicy tomato sauce with olives and calamari in full-tentacled miniature and mature rings ($12). The pasta was a textural joy, with both the bite of al dente ridges and the resilient dumpling springiness only handmade macaroni can provide. The squid were tender and sweet in a sauce that added depth without overwhelming the protein.
A few significant strikes against Il Sogno include not having a proper website, something I see not just as a courtesy but as a necessity, especially given its byzantine patchwork of breakfast, lunch and dinner hours. These you get only by calling the restaurant. The other is that during dinner on the patio, the neighbor’s dog wandered under our table and stuck its nose in my lap. (“Sorry. He just loooves new people.”) I get it, dog people. You simply must have your best friend with you in the car, at the bar, in the bath and at the nice osteria downtown. But can you keep Mr. Belvedere out of my crotch in the middle of my $200 dinner? A note to Il Sogno: Dogs should not be in a restaurant unless they're on the menu.