What happens when Riccardo Ullio storms the suburbs? Apparently, some bells and whistles.
At Novo Cucina, the new Italian joint Ullio has opened in Dunwoody to the cheers of chain-weary residents, diners use computer-chipped cards to rack up their charges at a wall of self-serve, automated wine spigots. Food charges are recorded onto this nifty card as well, via a subtle tap on your server’s computer tablet.
Nobody is more surprised by this gadgetry than me.
Ullio, after all, is the man behind Inman Park’s Sotto Sotto, where the tablecloths are white and everything, from the sublime pastas and risottos to the all-Italian wine list, is casually, purely elegant. And then there’s Fritti, which serves its wood-fired pizza with a certain amount of preciousness — the pies are presented unsliced and there is no, I repeat, no pepperoni to be found on the premises.
At Novo Cucina, on the other hand, not only is there pepperoni (well, to be precise, the menu reads, “Salumeria Biellese ‘Pepperoni’”), there is a kids menu and a walk-up gelato bar.
The decor could be called Mediterranean whimsy. It’s dominated by huge, colorful floor tiles; soaring, rustic rafters; and many, many glass doors thrown open to let the early fall breezes flow freely.
As a dining experience, I thought it was all terrific fun — especially because our server was so good at guiding us through the do-it-yourself elements while he took care of the pacing of our meal.
But, does Novo’s food measure up to the high bar set by its intown predecessors? Not always.
On a recent Saturday night, the pizza was good and the gelato (made by former Atlanta Journal-Constitution dining critic Meridith Ford) excellent. However, my pasta and “grilled entrée salad” (which felt like a cost-cutting/protein-skimping scheme) were a big disappointment.
Let’s start with the true heartbreak of the night — the tagliatelle ai funghi. My family and I have eaten this rich-yet-light mushroom elixir tossed with eggy pasta ribbons at Sotto Sotto for years. It’s up there with matzo ball soup on our list of comfort food essentials.
Novo pretty much ruined it. Its version was a sickly gray-beige color, with sauce that was undersalted, overbuttered and sticky when it should have been creamy. Uneven mushroom prep meant some of the funghi were springy and luscious and others were almost raw.
Another Sotto favorite, strozzapreti alla salsiccia, was also sub-par at Novo. Many of the twisty “priest stranglers” were not al dente; they were just plain undercooked — chewy and dense.
We did better when we kept it simple with, for instance, mussels that were tender and tiny, swimming in a broth that didn’t break the mold but had a nice, garlicky aroma. Another starter, a house-cured tuna (bresaola di tonno), was sweet and flavorful, with a lemony twang. The wafer-thin slivers of sashimi were scattered with pleasantly bitter arugula, red onion and matchsticks of radish.
But, when it came to our hanger steak salad, a little less simplicity would have been welcome. The beef — barely seasoned — rested on a bed of arugula that was barely lemon-dressed. We found ourselves searching through the salad for the very good Parmesan shavings just to get a jolt of flavor.
We did the same with the slender French fries piled next to the greens. On one hand, fries felt like a clumsy intrusion on a dinner salad. On the other, they were crispy and quite salty, so we gobbled them up with gratitude.
If you really want an evening of easy delights at Novo Cucina, here’s what I suggest: Get the pizza. The varieties are endless and the toppings are fresh and high-quality. The sauce is tangy/sweet and the crust is tasty — charred on the bottom, fluffy at the ends. It’s a light and bright pie, and Novo even slices it for you!
While you’re waiting for your pizza, you pop your nifty little card into the vino automat. While you can go for a civilized 4-ounce or 6-ounce glass, it’s more fun to gather up a raft of stemless goblets and make yourself a flight of 1-ounce pours.
Then, you definitely hit the dessert bar. I’m glad Ford and I never crossed paths at the AJC, so I don’t have to recuse myself from praising her gelato. It has an incredibly silky texture and flavors that range from subtle (cinnamon-laced snickerdoodle) to dense and dark (chocolate sorbet) to wonderfully aromatic (pistachio).
So, there you have it — keep it simple (except for the tech) and you’ll leave Novo Cucina happy. Especially when you go past that gantlet of chain restaurants on your drive home.
5592 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody
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