Midtown multiculturalism

United we dine on pizza, paella and pho

One of my favorite spots in town for inexpensive but authentic Italian food is Ciao Bella. Unfortunately, its Buckhead location and inevitable waits have made it off-limits most of the time.
Now, however, the owners of Ciao Bella have opened a second restaurant in Midtown, near the Fox Theatre. Baraonda (710 Peachtree St., 404-879-9962) takes its name from the Italian word for "chaos," according to our waiter. Well, maybe. My Italian friend in Genoa tells me "big crowd" or "hubbub" is a better definition and that the word is a fairly common restaurant name in Italy. The particular idea here, Baraonda's own menu explains in rather tortured language, is to suggest that people from different cultures can get on a common wavelength via an appreciation of the food. Good old American multiculturalism, in short.
Fact is, though, I agree. The food is mainly killer — and so is the ambiance. The room is rectangular, sided by lots of windows, with an open area in the back where the chef makes pizzas. It's fronted by a bar that was still awaiting a pouring license last week. My one complaint is that it's too dark — so dark that Wayne and I couldn't read our menus well.
Comparisons to Sotto Sotto and its next-door pizzeria Fritti are inevitable here. In fact the menu is mainly pizzas and, like those at the latter, they are thin-crusted and feature novel combinations for Atlanta. The white pizzas are especially notable. One adds gorgonzola to the usual mozzarella, parmesan and provolone. But I like the Gamberetti — a rather bland mozzarella that is a luscious foundation for shrimp and a generous heap of peppery uncooked arugula. The fra diavolo, made with spicy sopressata, tomato and mozzarella, and the Romana, featuring capers and anchovies, are other good choices. Most, more than adequate for one, cost $8.50.
I found the antipasti less satisfying. A mixed platter ($9) features a large serving of prosciutto, salami, mortadella, roasted peppers, arugula and caprino but, somehow, quality doesn't seem top-notch. Ditto for a classic salad of tomato, basil and mozzarella ($6.50). The latter was rubbery and incredibly salty. (The arugula salad with a lemon vinaigrette and parmesan is a better choice.)
I have not tried the pasta, though Ciao Bella's are always good. I did sample the risotto of the day made with calamari. It was quite nice, a huge portion, rich and very heavy with squid. You'll also find a few secondi — a fish of the day and veal marsala, for example. Dessert during our visit was a flawless tiramisu.
I believe the restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner, will work out its minor kinks and should become a mainstay at a location that has heretofore not been kind to its tenants.
Here and There
Down the street from Baraonda is Andaluz, reviewed here shortly after its opening a few months back. Atlanta's first attempt at an authentic tapas bar shocked everyone with its high prices and rather reserved menu. Lately, many people — including Raymond Hook, cheese god at Star Provisions — have urged me to return.
Pepe Linares, the opening chef, has returned to Spain, leaving affable owner Gladys Parada in charge of the kitchen. Tapas prices seem lower; dishes that are pricier have been revised as raciones for two and, best of all, a paella featuring chicken and chorizo, as well as seafood, has been added. The latter ($13) is a gigantic serving and is as good as any I've had in our city.
There are some additions, too, including an excellent tortilla — a potato and onion omelet that resembles a quiche ($3.50), an interesting trio of Spanish cheeses served with fig cake ($7) and, on a specials board, anchovies over sliced pear ($3.50) and clams steamed in Jerez sherry ($4). Obviously the restaurant is moving closer to an authentic tapas bar.
I recommend you go Wednesday night when Andaluz hosts flamenco performances (including dance, guitar and singing). I prefer to sit at the bar where Carlos pours sherry and slings a tiny bit of attitude in Spanish and English.
The cold weather requires soup. Atlanta's ethnic restaurants, especially along Buford Highway, are excellent choices for huge bowls of soup. Whether you head into a Mexican spot (like Los Compadres) for menudo, posole or caldo de gallo, or a Korean spot (like Cho Son Ok) for kim chi soup, you'll get a filling meal for next to nothing.
My favorite ethnic soup, though, is the Vietnamese pho. Usually made with beef stock, to which rice noodles, herbs, chilies, lime and a variety of meats are added, pho is a dish that allows the diner to control the flavor. Buford Highway is lined with pho restaurants, including Pho Ca Dao, which has moved from its old location to Plaza Fiesta at 4166 Buford Hwy. It probably serves the best pho in the city.
However, if you want a truly remarkable Vietnamese soup that is not strictly pho, go next door to Pho 79 and order soup K-10, called mi quang. It is from central Vietnam and features beef broth with broad yellow noodles. It's full of pork, shrimp, eggs, rice wafers and roasted peanuts that add a fascinating dimension to the usual soups. Of course, you'll float herbs and chilies on top. It's $5.75.
The restaurant has added some vermicelli dishes, too. My favorites are spiked with lemongrass and feature char-grilled pork, too. And be sure to order a glass of yellow bean jam with coconut juice on ice!
Call Cliff Bostock's voice mail, 404-688-5623 ext. 1504, with tips and complaints.

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