Michael Patrick has been a diver, fisherman, surfer, paramedic, sommelier, wine distributor, chef, dreamer. After one particularly heady stint studying Italian cuisine south of the Eternal City, he decided he wanted to start a pig farm in Carrollton, with a porchetta shop in Atlanta. Then he ran a business plan and thought better of it. Back and forth to Italy he went — to Roma, Calabria, Altamura. He studied, he apprenticed with nonnas, he worked in restaurant kitchens for free, and finally it hit him. His purpose in life. His reason for being. His one true vocation.
In 2010, Patrick started making pi fasacc (“swaddled newborns”), tortelloni and other delicately shaped and stuffed pastas in his Garden Hills basement. He sold his creations at local farmers markets. Fancy chefs started buying from him. He couldn’t keep up with demand. “It just took off like a bottle rocket,” he recalls. Today, at 49, the Boca Raton, Florida, native is the major-domo behind the stellar 3-year-old Storico Fresco Alimentari e Ristorante in Buckhead and its sister restaurant, the recently opened Forza Storico on Howell Mill Road.
Storico’s executive chef and partner is a pasta savant who seems more interested in keeping his hands in the dough than becoming famous. I’ve eaten at both Storicos numerous times yet have no idea what he looks like. So after researching this review, I rang him up and asked him to tell me his story. Before he could get to the end of his rambling saga, I felt like I’d been on a trip in a time capsule, or on the back of a Ducati Monster, zipping across Italy. (See first graph.)
For those willing to hold on for the ride, a night at Forza can pack that same adrenaline rush, and sense of history. Formerly the underground lair of Bacchanalia’s Anne Quatrano and her various enterprises, including Quinones Room and Little Bacch, the space has been transformed into a casual, modern trattoria with “SuperPope” graffiti and a handsome bar that commands a ringside view of the kitchen. Forza partner Stephen Peterson, an architect with a background in restaurant design, worked with his former firm, ASD | SKY, to create a look of fresh paint on old brick.
Get over there quick, and order yourself a plate of Papalina: a creamy toss of fettuccine with fat slivers of prosciutto cotto. Papalina is said to have been beloved by Pope Pius XII (thus the name), and it kinda makes me want to genuflect, cross myself and kiss Patrick’s ring.
To go with this rich dish, ask for a puntarelle salad, made with sweet ribbons of dandelionlike Italian chicory shipped in from Italy (I’m not joking) and dressed with pungent anchovy and garlic. A glass of wine from the smart, 100% Southern Italian list goes well with this repast, though I’m partial to beverage manager Jose Pereiro’s sweet, gently floral Negroni Bianco and Forza Martini. End your dinner with the Nutella tart.
That’s it. That’s your order.
If you really dig the simple, authentic style that has made Patrick such a formidable pastaio, you may find that you miss Storico Fresco, and those refrigerated cases stocked with sauces, lasagnas, pastas and timballos to take home. Forza is a winning sophomore effort in the way that Watchman’s is a suitable follow-up to Kimball House. No matter what I or anyone else says, it will have no shortage of customers. There’s just no replicating that original magic — a cafe and alimentari as dreamily joined as cacio e pepe.
Still, the Forza team tries. And often, it succeeds.
It begins with the details. Pereiro pours his cocktails over giant ice cubes etched with the name, “Forza Storico.” They look like something from a palazzo’s cornerstone. His Forza Martini comes with suit-yourself accouterment: olives and lemon peel neatly cut with pinking shears. If you aren’t sitting at the bar (and really, you should), you’ll want the jovial Stefano as your server. Speaking in a musical Italian accent, he gives a delightful performance from start to finish. Just as you polish off an appetizer, salad and two pastas and are ready for the check, he jests that it’s time for the main course.
Let’s discuss. Fritto Misto di Mare, with calamari, shrimp and orata (sea bream), wasn’t as evocative of the sea as a version I’ve had at Storico Fresco. I very much like the textbook charry-tender octopus in the Polpo. But the dish’s roasted potatoes seemed noticeably hotter than the other ingredients, and they hadn’t absorbed the supporting flavors: red onion, celery, lemon vinaigrette. But man, those tentacles.
I was rather enthralled with the finocchio salad, a perfect winter palate-cleanser of finely shaved fennel, oranges and olives, tossed so that every sliver was coated with citrus vinaigrette. On the other hand, a radicchio salad, with raisins and pine nuts, was perhaps a bit too heavy on the honey dressing, and my guest thought the pine nuts would have been better toasted.
So what of the pastas? Carbonara and cacio e pepe are both built from Patrick’s perfectly textured tonnarelli. Both are pretty terrific, too, if not quite slap-your-nonna material. Personally, I’d like the noodles a little more tender, but I’ll defer to the pros. That said, the previously mentioned Papalina and the Sugo di Coda (chubby rigatoni in tomato sauce with bone-in oxtail) made me as giddy as a Renaissance cherub.
Old-school ragu lovers will adore the Lasagna Casareccia, with its unctuous veal-and-beef gravy and ethereal noodles. The lusty red-sauce concoction is not for the faint of heart. Or this heart, at least. It’s So. Very. Rich. An entree of braised oxtail with tomato sauce, on a puddle of potato puree, was nicely executed, but the potatoes weren’t warm enough. (Getting the temperature just right seems to be a bit of a proverbial hot potato among cooks trying to assemble multi-component dishes from different pots.) You’ll do better with that sea bream, which is filleted and reassembled with a layer of aromatic fennel, lemons and rosemary in the middle. Beautiful.
If there’s a bite that succeeds in transporting me to the summer I spent in Rome as a college student, it’s that Nutella tart. I remember discovering the hazelnut spread in an alimentari, and practically eating it with a spoon. Fast-forward a few decades: I sit here, swooning over Forza’s chocolate-and-Nutella confection with a quenelle of lemon zest-dusted whipped cream on the side. Rome this is not. But I can work with it.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: classic Roman food from a pasta master
Service: laid-back, fairly knowledgeable, often delightful
Best dishes: Polpo. Puntrarelle and finocchio salads. Carbonara, cacio e pepe, Sugo di Coda, Papalina, orata (whole sea bream). Nutella tart.
Vegetarian selections: Mista, finocchio and radicchio salads. Sides of spinach, cauliflower, green beans, rapini, potatoes. Cacio e pepe. Mint ricotta ravioli.
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all the major ones; doesn’t accept cash
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Bar open until 11 p.m. on Fridays-Saturdays.
Parking: valet parking available; free parking in the lot; proceed to west side of the building for both
MARTA station: Midtown and Arts Center
Reservations: yes; strongly recommended
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: can be rather loud
Patio: yes, it wraps around two sides of the restaurant, with some fun nooks and crannies and a lovely view of the train tracks separating Westside Urban Market (where you are) from Westside Provisions (across the footbridge)
Address, phone: 1198 Howell Mill Road NW, Suite 020, Atlanta. 404-464-8096
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