Italian restaurants never go out of style because, well, because. Who doesn’t look down into a bowl of fettucccine or risotto and encounter a piece of his own soul? But once every turn of the restaurant trend clock Italian surges back into the forefront. Old formulas lay the foundation for new ones, and people fall in love with the cooking all over again.
Is now the time? Here’s some evidence:
1. There’s a new wave of restaurants making excellent fresh pasta. They range from Bruce Logue’s BoccaLupo to Drew van Leuvan’s Seven Lamps, and KR Steakbar, where chef Chris McDade proves this place really is an Italian restaurant in steakhouse drag.
2. Wood oven-fueled Neapolitan pizza is everywhere, as places strive for some of that Antico Pizza Napoletana magic. Call it the Giovanni di Palma effect, Part 1.
3. Home Park has been transformed into a Southern Little Italy, with Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano, Caffè Gio and a limoncello bar on the horizon. Call it the Giovanni di Palma effect, Part 2.
4. Neighborhood Italian restaurants that have opened in recent years have only gotten better and more essential. I’m thinking of Sandy Springs’ Cibo e Beve, Decatur’s No. 246 and Brookhaven’s Valenza, which routinely tops the Atlanta Zagat Survey.
5. The osteria has arrived. Today’s generation of Italian aims less for the structured dining experience of the trattoria and more for the rustic, country-inn attitude associated with these more informal venues. Though they differ greatly, these newcomers include Villagio Italian Kitchen in Decatur, Osteria Cibo Rustico in Toco Hills Shopping Center, and the classiest of the bunch — Osteria Mattone in Roswell.
This second venture from the Table & Main team of Ryan Pernice and Ted Lahey occupies another gracious Canton Street house set on a broad lawn. As before, they have transformed the space into a tastefully meandering restaurant with a crackle of energy.
These guys get that whole “casual, but not really” vibe that is so essential to Atlanta success. You can dress up and look great in this glow-lit bungalow, with its broad plank floors and red brick walls (“mattone” means brick). It becomes an accessory to your fabulous self. But the personality always stays low-key. The bar is a desirable hangout, not a purgatory for those awaiting tables. Once you crack the menu, there’s no coded food-snob language; it all sounds honest and appetizing. Whatever “Italian” means to you, it’s here.
A big part of that energy and free-flowing good will comes from what’s behind the bar, something this group understands well. However, we’re now drinking cool European wine instead of the small-batch bourbon we did at Table & Main, thanks to Pernice’s sommelier brother, Dan, the newest member of the team. The Pernice brothers, Roswell natives, are both tall and rail thin, with dark hair. They look enough alike that you suspect there is only one, a quick-change artist.
Make sure you trap Dan if you need wine advice. He has a gift for procuring affordable Old World wines made in a modern style, with appealing fruit and structure in equal measures. I really enjoyed the plush, juicy Gagliardo Dolcetto d’Alba he pours at the bar for $11 a glass. I sometimes get in a mood where I don’t want to drink anything other than red wine, and this one works as both an aperitif and a simple glass to carry you into dinner. I think I need a case.
The 2007 Rodano Chianti Classico ($56 a bottle) has a lot going on, and I’d recommend it if you want to try a bottle with more age, though I’d guess the slightly bitter Chianti finish isn’t for everyone. I have a feeling that young Mr. Pernice is destined to turn a lot of California fruit-bomb fans on to the subtler pleasures of the motherland.
Lahey’s first menu has been inspired by what sounds like an epic eating trip to Italy (31 restaurants in seven days!) with special attention paid to Rome. It’s a well curated grab bag, and if there are a few tonal inconsistencies, that’s what to expect from a restaurant that calls itself an osteria but can’t stop its fancier instincts.
Tuna carpaccio glossed with oil and dotted with slivers of black olive, chive and invisible shavings of bottarga seems to have come from a different kitchen than a rustic plate of furled octopus legs with chickpeas and mint. Happily for us, both are great.
Lahey channels Rome nicely with his handmade tonnarelli cacio e pepe — fine (if too clumped) strands of pasta in a terrific sauce of ewe’s milk cheese and black pepper. Were I a Roswellian, this with a glass of that Dolcetto would be my meal of choice.
This first impression of Osteria Mattone is based on one visit during which, alas, I did not find a good entree. This kitchen’s porchetta — a roulade of pork shoulder — tastes appealingly of fennel and garlic, but has too many pockets of fat and none of the crackling skin you want from this dish. The huge portion of house veal a la parmigiana arrives loaded on a raft of limp spaghetti and swathed in mozzarella. The preparation seems to have been outsourced to Sbarro. I know, I ordered veal parmesan, but I was still expecting some show of finesse.
Pastry chef Micki Kimberly comes to the rescue with her salted caramel budino, served with fior di latte gelato. This square of insanely delicious bread pudding is as dense as you want but surprisingly creamy — an honestly rustic dish given a sophisticated turn. It speaks of good things to come from this restaurant.
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