The old and the young

Rediscovering Nino’s, dining with a nino

After a trip to the restroom at Nino’s (1931 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-874-6505), I mentioned to Wayne that the hallway there is decorated with pictures of Italy’s Cinque Terre, where we spent a week some years ago.

“That was so beautiful, the light, the sea. Italy!” he began, indulging his habit of turning the beautiful into postcards.

“Yeah, but Italy has a history of fascism, beginning with the caesars. Very militaristic,” I snapped, hoping to tear the verbal postcard he was writing in the air into pieces. A woman at a neighboring table glared at me.

“No, no,” he said. “Politics is what happens to people. The Italians themselves are not that way. Think of ‘caesar’ as meaning ‘seizer.’ The caesars seized power. The Italians just kept cooking and eating. Remember what they did to Mussolini. They hung him from a meat hook. And his girlfriend too.”

“They literally impaled him on a meat hook,” I repeated. “How like the Italians to turn him into cured meat.”

“No, no,” Wayne replied. “Impaling is very different. When they impaled people they inserted a rod through the anus all the way to the mouth. A good impaler avoided puncturing the heart and lungs in order to prolong the life and pain of the victim.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the old-fashioned skewer-like bread sticks the waiter had just deposited on the table.

“I learned about impaling the first day of my world history class,” he explained. “I’ll have a glass of the house white. What are the specials?” he asked the waiter.

How is it I’ve never been to Nino’s before? Opened in 1968 by Antonio Noviello, Nino’s is, according to its menu, the city’s oldest Italian restaurant. I’ve been to its neighbor, Alfredo’s, many times and certain comparisons are inevitable. Both feature old-style Southern Italian cooking. Both are in gussied-up but fundamentally unattractive buildings on a street that has mysteriously eluded gentrification despite its proximity to Midtown.

Of the two, though, Nino’s appears to have stayed more contemporary and authentic. The servers in tuxedo pants and shirts are a bit comically recherche, but dining on an early autumn night on its patio decorated with vines and the summer’s last impatiens (illuminated by the restaurant’s red-neon sign) was quite pleasant, especially because the food turned out to be damn good.

The menu is gigantic. There are plenty of antipasti, like bresaola with arugula ($8.50), sauteed mussels in marinara ($8) and, Wayne’s choice, grilled shrimp over sauteed spinach ($8). I confess I found the spinach a bit watery, dribbling it on my shirt in fact, but the generous serving of well-grilled shrimp totally redeemed the dish.

An alternative to the antipasti is a half-order of any pasta on the menu ($8.75, $10.50 for those with seafood). Do it, or just blow your diet and add the half-order to your starter and entree. The gnocchi is fab. The little potato dumplings are bordering on over-cooked but, having eaten way too many rubbery gnocchi in our city, I give Nino’s tender version under a cream-splashed meat sauce a definite thumbs up. I also sampled spaghetti with a light marinara — available as a side with any entree — and found it almost perfect.

I know I’m not supposed to be eating veal. Please don’t — as happened some years ago — plant posters of miserable veal calves in my front yard. I know I’m going to be force-fed milk and caged in hell for all eternity for ordering the restaurant’s saltimbocca ($19). But, Lord, what a version Nino’s serves. The veal is velvety and tender, sauteed in butter and wine, seasoned with fresh sage and topped with prosciutto. It’s one of the best versions I’ve encountered in our city, probably because it’s kept simple. There’s no cheese and it’s not cooked rolled up.

Wayne ordered a special, simple red snapper, well grilled and served with some potatoes, broccoli and carrots ($22). It was mildly seasoned with garlic and olive oil — “lovely,” to quote Wayne.

We were quite full and could not face the old-style dessert cart the restaurant rolls around the dining room, but I spotted tiramisu and cheesecake on it.

Mr. Noviello is from Italy’s Amalfi Coast. In recent years we’ve all become understandably enamored of Tuscan fare, most of us having burned out on the New York-style versions of Southern Italian cooking that we grew up eating. But this charming and surprisingly good restaurant deserves more attention, especially when you’re in the mood for the comfort of good pasta.

Dining with the young

I recant all my complaints about the service at Soto. I took sushi-loving Young Van there last week and found the restaurant staffed by a number of friendly and attentive servers. Of course, it was early on a Monday night and the restaurant was not very crowded — and maybe you should take a clue from that. Call, reserve a seat at the bar early and you’ll be as happy as a fish killed by Chef Soto himself.

I had my favorite special here, steamed lobster touched with white truffle oil, wrapped in lacy lotus and served over uni mousse with little pickled cucumber slices. It’s about $15 for four or five mouthfuls, but, my God, it’s a dish that makes me shudder.

“Jesus, don’t have an orgasm,” Young Van told me.

“Why not? It’s better than sex and it’s certainly safe to swallow,” I snapped back.

“That’s pathetic. Better than sex. Whatever!”

His own special, a chunk of (politically incorrect) Chilean sea bass, crispy with creamy flesh, fabulously seasoned, was nearly as good. “It’s OK,” he said. “It’s not what I’m used to. I don’t really get the big deal.”

“Perhaps,” I suggested, “you could try chewing it before you swallow it, even letting it play on your tongue. Pretend you are not at Captain D’s, where I will be taking you next time.”

We proceeded to fill ourselves on a series of remarkable rolls afterward, like eel wrapped in kelp, and I remain convinced that Soto is among the best restaurants in our city. What I really want to know is why two of us ate our fill here for little over $60 while I spent $120 at Taka a few weeks ago for food that didn’t come close in quality.

“I don’t like the way this place smells,” Young Van told me when we ate a few weeks ago at Cafe de Nice in Buckhead on a rainy evening.

“I like the smell. It’s musty, like an old comfortable house,” I said.

“It smells like someone’s grandmother,” he said.

“Whatever!” I said. “This reminds me of many restaurants I’ve visited in France.”

“Whatever,” he replied, rolling his eyes hard enough to rattle his skull.

I confess, though, that things do seem to have changed at Cafe de Nice. I walked out a month or two ago when I couldn’t get served. And this trip the restaurant was empty except for two other tables. Our waiter and a man standing behind the counter spent more time talking on cell phones and looking at their watches than paying attention to the customers.

But the Provencal-style food is still good. Starters include socca, cubes of fried chickpea batter, and pissaladiere, a little “pizza” topped by roasted onions. (I’d love it if they’d add some anchovies to the latter as I’ve eaten it in France.) Entrees, including lamb stew and pork are homey and filling. Even Young Van, recovering from the grandmotherly smell, enjoyed his roasted pork.

Cafe de Nice really needs to work on its service and maybe develop some new menu dishes. But it still remains a favorite destination for me.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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