Squid Ink Tonnarelli at Bar Americano dresses a bed of long, black noodles with rock shrimp, calamari, garlic, basil and breadcrumbs. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: Henri Hollis
Photo: Henri Hollis

Review: Italian gone awry at Bar Americano in Buckhead

When I tasted the eggplant Parmesan at Bar Americano, I could not help but wonder where things had gone wrong for this restaurant. Here was an impressive looking dish, a big white porcelain boat loaded with three deep-fried slabs of eggplant covered in discs of mozzarella cheese and surrounded by deep red tomato sauce. It should have been a good entree, much like how this red-painted Italian joint in Buckhead should be a good restaurant. Yet, something has gone awry.

Consider the eggplant. The aubergine — sliced thick, breaded and deep-fried to a golden brown — was delivered in the impressively sturdy shape of hockey pucks and garnished with a single, deep-fried leaf of basil. It was a nontraditional preparation, certainly, but at least visually interesting. Unfortunately, it was also about as pleasant as eating a hockey puck. Once my knife cut through that sturdy breading, I found the eggplant’s flesh somehow both undercooked and extra greasy. It oozed with bitter oil. The tomato sauce surrounding it was no longer loose, but thickened into an unappetizing paste. The mozzarella on top was not quite melted, so it seemed more like rubber than the creamy, stringy pleasure it should be. It was as if in the middle of preparing a very good recipe, everything had taken a wrong turn.

This is not true of every dish at Bar Americano. I have enjoyed several quite a bit, along with the drinks they’ve been served with. The kitchen is run by an accomplished chef, Adam Waller, whose food I admired during his time at Bocado.  The bar is run by John Fogleman, who previously served excellent cocktails at Octane, before that local chain of coffee bars was bought and renamed Revelator. Their obvious talents are part of the reason I find Bar Americano’s flaws so perplexing.

The dining at Bar Americano is bookended by wine racks that catch the natural light filtering in from the open-air courtyard. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

It begins with the restaurant itself, tucked in the courtyard of the first floor of Andrews Square in Buckhead, formerly the nightlife-friendly Andrews Entertainment District. The place has been designed with an overwhelmingly strong emphasis on the color red. There are red walls, red shelves, red doors, red wine racks, and so on. The effect is garish, though I think it might be less so if the lighting weren’t so, to put it politely, eccentric. There are seats in this restaurant that are stage-center spotlight bright and others so dim one wants for a flashlight.

None of this is quite as distracting as the sound of this room, which boasts hard floors and high open ceilings. It feels a little like trying to have a conversation in a tin can, a problem only exacerbated by a busy Friday night. The oddness of this echo chamber is that I could hear a conversation about selling credit card processors at the table next to me more clearly than the date on the other side of my table.

Such flaws are rather surprising coming from 10 Apart, a restaurant group that has paid lavish attention to detail at, say, the Mercury, a restaurant so finely appointed and finished in midcentury details that it quite nearly transports you to 1957. By comparison, Bar Americano feels like an unfinished, neglected room.

The menu here tends to the slightly nontraditional, more Italian-American than Italian. The familiar Neapolitan pizza is replaced here by a more New York-style pie with a thick, crispy crust and a generous hand with toppings. A white pie comes loaded with a forager’s basket worth of roasted mushrooms, a bouquet of thyme, a tangle of caramelized onion and plenty of ricotta cheese. It is almost quite good, except for the fact that the thickness of the pizza dough has a way of masking the subtle flavors atop it. Of course, if it had been any thinner, the pie might have collapsed under the load of those toppings. This is something like the Catch-22 of pizza architecture.

Warm focaccia at Bar Americano is served with whipped ricotta and olive oil for dipping. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

Instead of pizza, I’d direct you to something much more simple and elemental: a plate of warm focaccia bread, three thick squares with blackened edges. It doesn’t look like much, not to mention the fact that the grainy ricotta served with it isn’t quite the whipped preparation promised on the menu. But this is very, very good bread: airy yet crisp, flavorful yet subtle.

The draft Negroni is just one of your many beverage options at Bar Americano. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

It’ll pair well with almost any drink you order from the bar here. The oaked Negroni is as stiff, bitter and complex as it should be, but the beverage menu here offers a more in-depth survey of Italian beverages than just that now-ubiquitous cocktail. There is an excellent selection of vermouths and bitters to choose from for aperitifs  and a strong but short wine list focused almost exclusively on Italy. Complex house cocktails including the Cosa Nostra, a rye cocktail stirred with Alessio Vermouth Chinato, nocino (an Italian walnut liqueur) and bitters, and garnished with a Luxardo cherry, are consistently well prepared.

This antipasto course at Bar Americano consists of spicy mussels, Calabrese chiles, garlic, white wine and oregano. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

Unfortunately, too much else of the menu is still hit or miss. A bowl of mussels in a garlicky, lightly spicy, white wine broth is a classic pleasure. You’ll want to keep sopping up the broth with the grilled bread that comes with it.

The tuna crudo, on the other hand, is mostly three piles of over-oiled greens and salty capers hiding three paper-thin sheets of tuna. The overall effect is a complete head-scratcher. I have no clue where the pleasure or flavor is supposed to be focused in this dish. I picked at it for some time before giving up entirely.

You can be safe, though, if you just stick to pasta. Agnolotti stuffed with rich shreds of beef cheeks arrive in a rich slurry of balsamic vinegar and beefy jus. The chunks of sweet rock shrimp folded into the squid ink tonnarelli are so tender and lovely that you won’t mind the tough chunks of squid that also come with it.

At Bar Americano, a simple dish of rigatoni is served with vodka sauce and Calabrese chiles. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Photo: For the AJC

The rigatoni served here, like that focaccia, succeeds for its elemental simplicity. These tender tubes are slicked with a creamy vodka sauce that has been heightened, ever so slightly, by the lovely heat of Calabrese peppers. Atop, just a sprinkling of parsley and Parmesan. Between bites of it, I savored sips of a Lamuri Nero d’Avola and almost felt alone with my meal.

Unfortunately, that was in part because I couldn’t hear the person sitting on the other side of my table. If only it all could be just as simple as that rigatoni at Bar Americano.

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