Pacci Ristorante

866 West Peachtree Street N.W., adjacent to Hotel Palomar, 678-412-2402

Eating at Pacci Ristorante-- with its simple Italian steakhouse menu of hot and cold antipasti and mix of steaks and chops with polenta and chicken scallopini -- is a tasty reminder of this. And eating this type of food -- rich with flavor and familiarity, yet oddly out of the ordinary — is like running into an old friend you haven't seen in quite a while, but have never forgotten.

Designed by the San Francisco-based design firm Puccini, the California feel of the decor and space, with plush banquettes and dark walnut woods, is predictable. Timely cocktails and a wine program with a hip California palate (one evening I enjoyed a flight of roses, a passe wine that is experiencing a big comeback) are predictable. What wasn't predictable was that I would enjoy the experience as much as I did.

Sitting pretty next to its mothership, the newly opened Hotel Palomar, Pacci also serves as the hotel's restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Georgia native Keira Moritz, who, in addition to her culinary degree from Johnson & Wales University Charleston, has spent some serious stove time out west in Denver and California, serves as the restaurant's executive chef.

The menu is short and sweet, and doesn't muck around with pretense. Neither do the waitstaff, an energetic group of youngsters eager, but not stumbling, to please.

During cold antipasti plates of mixed olives and tiny, bite-sized ovals of ciliegine mozzarella or insalata Caprese made with heirloom tomatoes (and unfortunately drizzled with balsamic vinegar -- an American addition) a server might divulge that the uniforms are made from some sort of recyclable wool or reveal secrets from their hometown in Mississippi.

A very relaxed course of hot appetizers might begin with Vidalia onion soup, but shouldn't go without Moritz's elusively tender duck confit. It falls from the bone with just enough (but not too much) fat, yet sports an ethereally thin, crisp crust, over gorgonzola and polenta studded with a contrast of fat blackberries in a sweet preserve.

Moritz's Bolognese on first bite comes off a little too light -- this meat sauce is one of Italy's most rich -- but then gets the better of your taste buds with bright tomato flavor that serves as an undercurrent to its richer side.

The restaurant appeals to all comers as an "Italian steakhouse," but a boneless Wagyu ribeye was the most boring thing I tried. The corporate powers that be should leave Moritz to her wiles.

Who needs a steak or obligatory pork chop when she entices best with creative sides of fava beans mixed with nibs of grilled corn, cherry tomatoes and Kalamata olives? Or a tuna carpaccio draping the plate, bits of grapefruit and avocado amid arugula and shards of Parmesan cheese?

Desserts are seductive, too, from comforting bread pudding to a dainty threesome of "tiramisu," a flight of prettily layered mousse cakes in banana, coffee and lemon flavors.

Moritz is a welcome addition to Atlanta -- she is one of a handful of female chefs running a kitchen in this town, and she -- and Pacci -- do it with a clever nod to authenticity and a steady hand extended towards a friendly shake.

Pacci Ristorante

Overall rating:

Food: Contemporary Italian

Service: Very relaxed, efficient and cordial

Price range: $$ - $$$

Credit cards: American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Discover

Hours: Breakfast is served from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Best dishes: Tuna carpaccio, papardelle Bolognese, fava beans, duck confit

Vegetarian selections: Salads and pasta choices

Children: Yes, early evening or lunch

Parking: Complimentary valet through the hotel

Reservations: Yes

Wheelchair access: Yes

Smoking: No

Noise level: Low

Patio: No

Takeout: Yes

Address, telephone: 866 West Peachtree St. N.W., adjacent to Hotel Palomar, 678-412-2402

Web site: www.pacciatlanta.com

Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.

Key to AJC ratings

Outstanding

Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.

Excellent

One of the best in the Atlanta area.

Very good

Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.

Good

A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.

Fair

Food is more miss than hit.

Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.

You can write your own review here .

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