Grazing: Lost and found

Fritti finally open for business, sardines and all

Ask and ye shall receive. Two weeks ago, I complained that it's all but impossible to find a fresh sardine or anchovy in Atlanta and a few days later I was eating crow. Fritti (311 North Highland Ave., 404-523-6678), the new pizzeria in Inman Park, serves fried whole sardines, fresh from Italy, as an appetizer. Fritti adjoins Sotto Sotto and is the second project of owner-chef Riccardo Ullio. The young chef, who made his first mark here at Pasta da Pulcinella, has had a powerful impact on our city's dining life. Serving completely authentic Italian cuisine, uncontaminated by the influence of New York, Sotto Sotto became an overnight hit. Although Sotto Sotto has competition in restaurants like Antica Posta, its informal but smart dining room make it attractive to intowners who want to avoid Buckhead's heavy drama.

Not that prices at Sotto Sotto aren't a mite high. And we recently dined with a group of foodies who complained that Riccardo, overseeing the construction of Fritti, hasn't been in the kitchen enough lately. The biggest complaint I hear is the removal of the hanger steak from the menu and its replacement by an ordinary strip steak. I hate that, too, but the chef says the delicious hanger steak was repeatedly returned to the kitchen by diners who found it tough. "They wouldn't pay for it," he says. "That's the way Atlanta diners are. They figure if they don't like it, they don't have to pay for it."

Fritti was a long time coming. The neighborhood association in Inman Park did just about everything possible to deter its opening, trying to overturn permits it was granted. Their objections are a mystery to anyone looking at the location, which is a cluster of commercial warehouse buildings with plenty of parking.

The new restaurant is beautiful and a far more lavish undertaking than its next-door sister. You enter through a patio full of shrubs in enormous ceramic containers. Once in, you'll see a small bar to the right, down the stairs, and a pair of high-tech wood-burning pizza ovens almost directly in front of you. The new pizza chef, Italian with long training, dispenses the pizzas on a long spatula without a smile. The room features lots of fancy lighting, though honestly, it's a bit murky. At the far left is a delightfully sculptural banquette backed by a wall of colorful fabrics. Stairs lead to a loft, not yet open, and not visible from the main dining room.

Start your meal with some of the fried antipasti that give the restaurant its name. I think you're a fool if you don't order the sardines, which you should eat whole, little bones and all. I watched Wayne dissect one with the intensity of a mother trying to spare a child strangulation by fishbone. Don't do that. Annoint the delicious fish in plenty of lemon juice and pop them in your mouth. The crunch of the batter, the luscious flesh, the tiny bones will make you see Vernazza. Cost of the freshly imported fish is $8 for a plate of four.

An alternative is a mixed plate that includes fried shrimp, scallops, calamari and baby octopus, as well as a few sardines ($12). There's also a starter calzone, properly fried, with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. There are wild mushrooms in rice flour batter and croquettes made with potato and gorgonzola cheese. There's mozzarella in carrozza — a Pullman loaf stuffed with fior de latte mozzarella with basil and salted anchovies.

Pizzas are destined to be regarded as the best in the city. I love them not just for their ingredients, but their thin crusts, which can vary a bit from crispy to chewy. The important thing is that the 22 individual-sized pies do not have the obnoxiously thick crusts that seem to be the default choice in Atlanta.

Many feature popular San Marzano tomatoes combined with other authentic ingredients, such as the stracchinella, with mozzarella, stracchino cheese and a very good sausage ($13). There's a fabulous pie made with sweet San Daniele prosciutto and mozzarella, topped with fresh baby arugula ($13). There's one made with fresh jumbo lump crab meat ($18), another made with wild mushrooms and (the ubiquitous) truffle oil ($13), one featuring fresh tuna ($15) and many more. You will certainly want to order several types and share.

Riccardo has moved some staff from Sotto Sotto to the new venue, including his chef. A new one has been hired for Sotto Sotto. Let me hear your comments on both restaurants.

Here and there

We recently dined at Nicola's (1602 Lavista, 404-325-2524) and found the longtime Atlanta restaurant as good as ever. A totally unpretentious venue with some really garish paintings in its rear dining room, Nicola's serves Lebanese cuisine that ranks among our city's best Middle Eastern. Try the family-style dinner ($17.95), which allows you to sample many of the specialties, including the giddily named "chicken a la beef," which I love. If you don't want to pig out, order the lamb shank ($12.95).

I am sick to report that In the Shade Café has had to close because its landlord, the Wish-Fulfilling Tree, has gone out of business. Chef Mike Elsen served the city's best vegetarian cuisine in this odd little spot. We hear that he is looking for a venue to open his own organic restaurant, and we'll keep our fingers crossed in wait. This is an enormous loss in a market whose vegetarian chefs are mainly stuck in a retro style, no matter how updated their dining rooms look.

By the time you read this, I will be in Sevilla, where I am attending the national biannual festival of flamenco art. The event lasts nearly a month, so I won't be returning until the end of September. If you have favorites in Carmen's hometown, please e-mail me.

Contact Cliff Bostock at 404-688-5623, ext 1504, or at grazer@mindspring.com.

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