Don’t judge a restaurant by its address

“Good luck making her happy,” my brother Miguel said to my husband. That was at our wedding reception more than 20 years ago.

To this day, Miguel remains correct: I am not the easiest person to please. For better or worse, I always have an opinion. I needlessly insert myself, redirecting lost souls from the nearest Starbucks to the better indie coffee bar down the street. I’m picky, competitive, self-demanding and highly judgmental. That last quality has impacted my dining decisions.

I ardently believe that the entire experience of dining out should be enjoyable. That’s why I prefer to eat in walkable neighborhoods rather than driving to a strip mall, parking, stuffing my face and driving back home feeling all bloated and burpy. Why not walk it off with a post-dinner stroll and a quality chat to boot?

Until now, that attitude has seen me snub pretty much any restaurant that occupies space in a strip mall. That won’t work in Atlanta, city of strip malls. However, those malls are filled with some high-quality food offerings, which I was reminded of recently when I ate at Il Bacio, located in Lindbergh Plaza in lower Buckhead.

I assumed Il Bacio was a chain restaurant, considering it is surrounded by Home Depot, FexEx, AT&T and Target. (Again, unfair. Why should I think all chains are evil? But we’ll hold that for a later date.) My new friend Paula set me straight.

It’s owned by Fran and Frank Spatafore, husband-and-wife transplants from New York City. The Spatafores relocated to Atlanta in 2006. They were looking for a change, and Fran has family here. Food is something Frank knows well, his family having been in the bagel business and his dad having owned an Italian restaurant in the Big Apple. They decided they’d make the move and run an Italian eatery here. Il Bacio opened in May 2007.

The focus at this Italian restaurant is pizza and pasta, but Paula said its gnocchi was the best in town. She should know since, in her native Brazil, every 29th of the month is gnocchi day. (Who knew Brazilians had a love affair with gnocchi? Same with Argentina, research reveals.) She continues to partake from a distance.

Actually, she adores gnocchi so much, she eats at Il Bacio at least three times a month, phoning ahead when she wants something special like mac-and-cheese gnocchi. Fran and Frank even made Paula and her closest friends special gnocchi when Paula’s dad passed away earlier this year.

“She was obviously upset, especially since she couldn’t go back for the funeral,” Frank recalled. “They came here. She’s part of our family because she’s here all the time. I hope we helped in easing her pain.”

That’s not the talk of any old tenant at a strip mall. That’s mom-and-pop kind of care.

My dad also died this year, and a bunch of chef friends came to my family’s aid with food. They still don’t know what that means to me, in the same way that Frank will never understand how much Paula appreciates the gift he and Fran gave her that sad night.

At this point, I connect with Paula on a spiritual level. I don’t mind when she leads me around like the lost lamb that I probably am. When she said, “Ligaya, you have to try the gnocchi at Il Bacio,” of course, I said yes.

Oh, my! That gnocchi, made by hand, is light as a pillow. The standard Bolognese sauce ladled atop is delicious, but I prefer the bright, herbal pesto. Then again, I could eat it naked — read that either way — or maybe with some grated Parmesan and flecks of black pepper.

The key to its fluffiness is ricotta cheese, rather than just the standard potato and flour mixture, Frank generously revealed. He even ticked off all the ingredients. Besides the ricotta, taters and durum wheat flour, there are eggs, grated Parm, buttermilk, baking powder and salt. Did I want the recipe? I thought for a minute. Nope. I could never duplicate what the Spatafores put their heart and soul into. Instead, I’m coming back for seconds and thirds and licking the plate clean.

So, I’m learning, Atlanta. Mom and Pop sometimes set up shop in a strip mall. I’m down with that. I’d better be. If not, I’m going to miss out on a lot of good food — and even better people.

As for a post-dinner Il Bacio walk, I can always saunter out with one of the restaurant’s housemade gelatos in hand, head across the parking lot and check out the pumpkins for sale at Home Depot.