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Chef Carla Pellegrino brings her star power to Grapevine’s new Teatro restaurant

By Rebecca ChristophersonMay 3, 2024May 10th, 2024No Comments

Chef Carla Pellegrino brings her star power to Grapevine’s new Teatro restaurant

By Joy Donovan
Photography by Nancy Farrar

Teatro means theater in Italian, and the stage is certainly set at the new hot spot in Grapevine.

The set includes leather banquettes surrounding the room, evoking a 1940s dinner club. The lighting is courtesy of overhead chandeliers, spotlighting dining tables. The music comes from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Black and white movie star portraits adorn the walls, and the star of the show is flanked by vintage shots of Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn.

Carla Pellegrino remembers beginning to cook by age 10, learning from her Italian mother, but living in Rio de Janeiro.

The star? She’s Carla Pellegrino, celebrity chef with a Sophia Loren vibe. Pellegrino is executive chef behind Teatro Bistro & Cocktail Lounge, downtown Grapevine’s newest restaurant, 120 S. Main St.

“This is a stage where everybody comes here to be the best version of yourselves,” Pellegrino said, waving her hand at the décor borrowed from a different era. “Who doesn’t want to recognize themselves in a 1940s movie? When you come here in the evening, it’s like you stepped into the past. Everything here is very nostalgic.”

Moving from Las Vegas, Pellegrino opened this restaurant just weeks ago. In a short time, she made a dizzying array of professional decisions about staffing and menu selections, while also moving across state lines and finding a new place to live.

Her menu in Grapevine evolved, with her Italian roots taking a starring role at Teatro. The Southern-style shrimp and grits, for example, received a touch of Italy with the “polenta bramata” she added to the grits.

“It’s selling like hot pancakes,” she said.

Among the listings for several pasta dishes and Mediterranean salads, Teatro’s diners will find Texas beef. The Italian-American combo brings a shrug and a laugh from the chef.

“It was meant to be an American bistro, but I’m Italian, and I can’t help it,” she quipped. “People like Italian food. Now, I don’t know if it’s an American bistro anymore, because two-thirds of the menu is Italian. But we do have a burger.”

Given its name, the 97-seat Teatro had to include some drama. The front corner, with enough space for a piano and a singer, is reserved for musicians to entertain on weekends. The old fashioned cocktail is served with a theatrical flair. The beautiful wood bar, at the center of the dining room, creates its own scene for evening partiers sharing drinks. It’s the atmosphere — maybe a show — Pellegrino was hoping to create.

Pellegrino remembers beginning to cook by age 10, learning from her Italian mother, but living in Rio de Janeiro. It became her career, and she trained formally at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. From a Broadway-area restaurant she co-owned in New York, she jumped to Miami and Las Vegas, where she opened Rao’s Las Vegas and a few other eateries.

A bright entertainment spotlight found her along the way, earning her celebrity chef status during her 24 years as an executive chef. She won her turn on season seven of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” on Food Network. She also appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” NBC’s Today, CBS Mornings and Fox News. She’s been featured in magazines Food & Wine and Bon Appétit, too.

Teatro’s menu includes a dish that’s worth blowing a diet for. “Cappelletti con Prosciutto e Radicchio,” a creamy, butter pasta dish that Pellegrino served at the 2009 James Beard Awards reception, appears on the Teatro menu as a nightly special from time to time.

Teatro isn’t the only thing she and business partner Marlon Tapanes, have on the front burner. Pellegrino and Tapanes are working on Urban Italia, a new Dallas restaurant under development by Identity Hospitality group, the company that brought Pellegrino to Texas. Groundbreaking for the restaurant, near the American Airlines Center, is set for April, and the opening is penciled in for September.

Pellegrino’s struck by the positive reception for Teatro, even before it opened. Weekends see 150 diners per night, and she’s thrilled.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Fridays and Saturdays get crazy. The people who live here are very friendly and welcoming.”

Teatro, now open just for dinner Tuesday-Saturday, will evolve. Hours will expand, she said. Pellegrino also sees seasonal changes to the menu, but many entrees will become fixtures.

She’s planning a brunch menu, which would mean longer hours and new menu items. Her “mean fried chicken” will appear on the brunch menu as chicken cordon bleu and waffles, instead of the more expected chicken and waffles.

“I believe in changing seasonally some of the dishes, but the core should be the signature dishes,” she said. “What makes a chef a chef are those core dishes that would never change. Food is like a song. The tastes and smells bring you back in time, just like music does.”

Pellegrino’s lived in Rio de Janeiro, New York, Miami and Las Vegas. “This is the perfect middle between New York and Vegas,” said Pellegrino, whose adult daughter is moving to Dallas.

It seems the chef is applauding the choices that brought her culinary show to Texas.

“Now that I have family here, I’m going to become a Texan,” she said in an Italian accent. “I like the people. I think that this is the place. I can’t stop telling people how happy I am.”


Classic Italian Meatballs by Carla
This mainstay recipe of Pellegrino’s starts with ground beef, veal and pork. Serves 8-10

Chef Carla Pellegrino’s Classic Italian Meatballs start with lean ground beef, veal and pork.

1 lb ground beef
½ lb ground veal
½ lb ground pork
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated pecorino romano cheese
2 tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1 ½ garlic cloves, peeled and minced (optional)
1 ½ cup bread crumbs
¾ cup lukewarm water
½ cup regular olive oil, not extra virgin (Bertolli or Filippo Berio)
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Corn oil enough to fry (do not use fry mix oil)

Combine beef, veal and pork in a large bowl. Add eggs, cheese, parsley and garlic. Salt and pepper to taste.

Using your hands or a mixer with a paddle on low speed, blend the ingredients.

During mixing, add the bread crumbs into the bowl, slowly add the lukewarm water and olive oil, mix it together until the mixture becomes homogeneous.

Make a small (2 ounces) meat patty, place an 8-inch sauté pan over a medium-high flame for about 2 minutes, add a spoon of vegetable oil and sear the meat patty on both sides. Taste it to ensure it’s moist and seasoned enough.

Shape the meat mixture into balls (about 5 ounces apiece) with your hands, and roll them well until the cores feel bonded and won’t lose its shape or open up at frying time.

Place a large sauté (14 inches) pan over medium-high flame and add the oil (corn, canola or vegetable oil, enough to immerse half of each meatball). Once oil gets to 425 degrees, place in one layer of meatballs (do not deep fry or overlap them). Discard excess oil. When the bottom half of the meatball is very brown and slightly crispy, turn it and cook the top half. Remove it from heat and drain in a perforated pan or on paper towels.

Lower the cooked meatballs into simmering marinara sauce or your own Sunday gravy for about 10-15 minutes or until they reach 135-140 degrees inside. Serve it over pasta or in marinara.

Carla’s tips:
Make one of your ground meats coarse, and grind the other two fine. It will give better texture. Keep all of meats about 88% lean.

It takes one egg for each pound of meat for the mixture. If using large eggs in a large batch, cut back the eggs. Add eggs if meat mixture is too loose.

Before serving, keep the meatballs hot in the marinara used to simmer. When serving, drain the meatball and top with fresh hot marinara.