Ecco best at beginning and end of meal

Piquillo peppers stuffed with braised beef.

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Piquillo peppers stuffed with braised beef.


ExploreEcco

Overall rating: 2 of 5 stars

Food: European-inspired seasonal fare

Service: professional and helpful

Best dishes: beef carpaccio, grilled romaine, chocolate-cherry torte

Vegetarian selections: pasta, salad, goat cheese appetizer, pizza

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Price range: $$$

Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, AMEX

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Children: no

Parking: yes, valet

Reservations: yes

Wheelchair access: yes

Smoking: no

Noise level: loud when full

Patio: yes

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 40 Seventh St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-347-9555

ExploreWebsite

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I don’t remember how it started.

Every Christmas, I received a box of chocolate-covered cordial cherries from my grandmother. Remember those? After all other packages were opened, she covertly slipped me an extra paper-wrapped box containing our shared indulgence. Our little secret cemented my fondness for the candies, no matter how artificial my adult tastes find them.

Now imagine a version more enticing to an adult palate. Maybe it would be deconstructed, maybe a flourless chocolate torte with spiced cherries? You can find this very dish at Ecco ($8). A decadent dark chocolate round topped with fresh whipped cream comes surrounded by sour Amarena cherries that have been candied with orange-blossom honey, star anise and red wine. Oh, those cherries. Can I get a jar of them each Christmas?

Chef Craig Richards, chef at Ecco, imports these divine dark cherries from Bologna, reflecting the Italian influence he brings to the restaurant’s European-inspired menu.

Richards began his career working his way up from line cook to chef de cuisine and later to executive chef in the Italian-restaurant kitchens of celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich. Upon moving to Atlanta in 2005, he took the helm at La Tavola, Fifth Group’s Italian trattoria.

When he moved to Ecco in 2011, he inherited a large restaurant with a devoted clientele. The appealing space has the Fifth Group polish, yet without the stale corporate character common to restaurant groups.

Richards also inherited the restaurant’s signature dishes like the famed fried goat cheese ($7), perfect little balls of fried dough bursting with warm goat cheese offset by chunks of cracked black pepper and a puddle of honey.

The piquillo peppers ($7), stuffed and roasted with juicy red-wine-braised beef and bits of diced pepper and parsley, also have an honored place on Ecco’s menu. Small plates such as these dominate the menu and with good cause. That’s where you’ll find the best expression of the chef’s skill.

Isn’t this what comes to mind when you think of Ecco? Bouncing around the wine list divided into New- and Old-World-style reds and whites with a steady supply of small plates. You’ve had the goat cheese and piquillo peppers, now sample the new Ecco.

Upon entering the restaurant, you’re sure to see the arresting display of meats curing in the glass-enclosed wine room. Richards has five hanging legs of year-old prosciutto, which will be ready sometime in the next few weeks. Last year’s three legs sold out in three days. Richards says it’s as good, if not better, than Italian prosciutto due to its freshness.

If you miss out on the prosciutto, you can sample some of the other house-cured meats like the bresaola, Toscano salami and guanciale ($4.75 for one, $14 for three, five for $22).

Did you know that the kitchen also dabbles in cheesemaking? Ricotta, fromage blanc and mozzarella top the list. You can try that creamy fresh mozzarella, all melty and gooey-good on the wood-fired crackery thin pizza with tangy San Marzano tomatoes and basil ($13).

As you might expect of an Italian-inspired chef, Richards also tackles handmade pasta. He’s using a bronze extruder, which produces pasta with a rougher texture that allows for more sauce stickage. The strozzapreti ($21) laced with walnut pesto, al dente asparagus and sweet peas may be lackluster in color and flavor, but the sauce certainly sticks.

Look for the menu to change often with whatever produce comes through the kitchen door. The restaurant is currently taking advantage of green garlic’s short season with the Venice-inspired aioli on the beef carpaccio ($12). Beautiful slices of peppered Brasstown beef come adorned with splashes of fruity olive oil and a compelling green garlic aioli that tastes much like homemade ranch dressing. (Can I say that?) Cue the almond-flour-dusted artichoke chips for texture. Che bella!

We head toward Scandinavia with the charred romaine with house-smoked Steelhead trout and pickled beets ($14). A creamy Jackson-Pollock-style buttermilk drizzle adds balance to the wood, smoke and char. I’ll take another.

I’ll trade in the big, meaty Calendar Island mussels ($10) that may be slightly past their prime. The mild smoked paprika broth sweetened with basil lacks any real spark.

It’s a similar story with the butcher steak ($26) with a charred fresno chile and sherry reduction. The sauce sounds so perfect. Imagine it: smoke, heat, sweetness, depth. Yes? No. I aggressively mopped the steak through the sauce searching, searching in vain for those promised flavors.

Not so with the tuna ($27), where the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. Between the cocoa, fish fumet, sherry and pancetta, you’ve got a a spirited combination with each ingredient vying for attention. It sounded so interesting. And it was.

Ecco continues to be a lively place to visit with friends over a bottle of wine and bite to eat. When I return, I’ll stick with the top portion of the menu, ordering the small plates and Italian-inspired dishes. Those and the chocolate-cherry torte.