Inside Caterina’s, the controversial Fort Worth restaurant with a no-phone policy

Inside Caterina's, the controversial Fort Worth restaurant with a no-phone policy

No one inside Caterina’s Ristorante had any idea that it was raining sideways in Fort Worth.

The red-sauce joint is windowless, a secluded spot that feels like it belongs in New York. And Caterina’s has a no-cellphones policy โ€” surely, you’ve heard? โ€” so none of us received weather alerts or texts from friends as the rain blew in. I didn’t even know what time it was. I didn’t take a single photo of my food.

Among the four pasta dishes at Caterina's in Fort Worth is the linguine alla vongole, a...
Among the four pasta dishes at Caterina’s in Fort Worth is the linguine alla vongole, a briny dish with clams, garlic and lemon. (Kevin Marple)

That’s all part of the calculated experience at Caterina’s, chef Tim Love’s latest creation in a city where he rules restaurants. He can take risks โ€” like asking people to put their phones in one of those little locked pouches โ€” now that he’s spent over two decades bringing people to the Fort Worth Stockyards, originally to his first restaurant, Lonesome Dove. In the years that followed, Love has opened over a dozen restaurants, become a regular at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and the Austin Wine & Food Festival, given advice to President Donald Trump before the PPP program was launched, and co-hosted CNBC TV show restaurant start-up.

โ€œWhen I did this place,โ€ he says, gesturing around Caterina’s three weeks after it opened, โ€œI wanted to create a dining room with real people.โ€

When Love puts it like that, that he just wants to be โ€œreal peopleโ€ in a restaurant: We can do that, can’t we? He, too, put away his phone. It was his first time as a โ€œrealโ€ diner in his own restaurant.

Caterina’s is named after one of Love’s six siblings, Kathleen, who died recently. The no-phones idea materialized after that, following a failed birthday dinner in Miami for Love’s wife, Emilie. They sat next to an apparent Instagram influencer who set up a spotlight that shined in Love’s eyes for several hours. โ€œIt ruined it,โ€ he says.

Still, even Love’s wife didn’t think he should open a restaurant disavowing our favorite accessory. But Love dug in. And to combat the potential questions, he came up with answers.

lobster "Alison" was named after one of chef Tim Love's sisters.  The restaurant is named...
Lobster “Alison” was named after one of chef Tim Love’s sisters. The restaurant is named after another sister, Kathleen, who died recently.(Kevin Marple)
  • What if someone needs to get hold of you while you’re at dinner? Each booth has a phone jack behind it, and a red rotary phone will be brought to the table for calls.
  • What if you want to take photos of your food? A manager will email you a photo gallery of all the dishes.
  • What if people don’t come to the restaurant because they haven’t seen it through someone else’s phone? Love bristles. โ€œMaybe someone who is here will [expletive] tell someone about it,โ€ the chef says.

Ah, yes: Word of mouth. Remember it?

It’s a shame that the phone thing is such a point of conversation, because it’s almost unnoticeable once inside the restaurant. The small, close-quarters restaurant is an elegantly buzzy place, where people are cheers-ing across the table and telling big stories.

The timing is great, anyway: Italian food is big in Dallas-Fort Worth right now, especially since the splashy debut of New York City restaurant Carbone. Caterina’s plays the game, serving truffled carpaccio, Caesar salad and rigatoni alla vodka as it’s expected to, but its location in the Fort Worth Stockyards lends some earnestness. It’s still one of the fanciest restaurants in Fort Worth, but the service is warm and slow. And thanks to Love’s stubbornness, there’s nobody cheesing in front of an iPhone.

Caterina's in Fort Worth has two carpaccios on the menu: asparagus and artichoke carpaccio,...
Caterina’s in Fort Worth has two carpaccios on the menu: asparagus and artichoke carpaccio, pictured here; and beef carpaccio Piedmontese, with white truffle, cremini mushrooms and Pecorino cheese. (Kevin Marple)

It took 20 minutes for us to get menus, all part of Love’s plan. Servers are instructed to make guests comfortable; get them a cocktail, made tableside; and then launch into the seafood, salads, pastas and entrees. Time doesn’t matter when your phone isn’t constantly lighting up.

And so, we ordered wine. We tried two carpaccios โ€” the traditional beef with truffle, then a delicate asparagus-and-artichoke carpaccio with pine nuts and red wine vinaigrette. Later came two pastas. And lobster โ€œAlisonโ€ with Parmesan cream and sweet corn ravioli, named for another one of Love’s sisters. Then pork chop alla piccata. And why not? Dessert. And limoncello.

With no interruptions โ€” except for the occasional fan who came to congratulate the chef on his new restaurant โ€” dining at Caterina’s felt more thoughtful than some high-dollar dinners do.

Rigatoni alla vodka is bound to be a popular order at Caterina's in Fort Worth.
Rigatoni alla vodka is bound to be a popular order at Caterina’s in Fort Worth. (Kevin Marple)

Caterina’s is a โ€œhuman experiment,โ€ Love admits. It seems downright stupid when you say out loud what he’s really asking: Are we OK without our phones for a sec? Of course we are.

After a several-hour dinner, I opened the door to find a wall of rain, the brick streets flooded with 6 inches of water. I almost turned right back around, where there’s wine and pasta and music, because there could be no elegant exit, not in this weather. But instead, I grabbed a black napkin, put it over my head and took off my high heels. I ran barefoot next to a server, who offered to help me find my car in the driving rain.

Soaking wet, I drove back to Dallas, wondering whether that place โ€” the many courses of Italian food, the secluded dining room, the pleasant diners โ€” was real. I didn’t have any photos to prove it, and you know what? That’s fine.

For more food news, follow Sarah Blaskovich on Twitter at @sblaskovich.



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