Noshing on North Highland

Visiting some old favorites

This week, I decided to try some old favorites on North Highland Avenue. After a few weeks of dubious culinary adventuring, I felt I deserved some predictably good meals.

My first stop was Sotto Sotto (313 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-6678), the brainchild of Riccardo Ullio, who is Milanese and first distinguished himself here as one of the co-founders of Pasta da Pulcinella. I have been addicted to the restaurant since the day it opened in 1999.

Ullio, who has lived in this country since he was 12 and has a degree from Georgia Tech in environmental engineering, never lost his Italian intensity. One seldom meets a chef who is so passionate about his cuisine, which really inaugurated a new standard in this city.

The restaurant itself is a work of art. In a previously decrepit building, it is all wood and cream colors with a sandblasted wall that, with old colors showing through, is the kind of pentimento effect you see in weathered Tuscan buildings. The kitchen is open — from the dining room and through a street window. It's all very evocative — poetic, really — and a fine demonstration that you don't need the Johnson Studio to turn your restaurant into a style-magnet. Foodies and trendy types have flocked here since day one.

I rather frequently had complaints from readers that the restaurant impressed them as "pretentious" during its first two years. Usually they cited the black-clad wait staff and rather high prices (which now seem quite reasonable). More likely, I'm guessing, the restaurant's menu, such a departure from the Italian-American food that long dominated the city, intimidated many newcomers.

The cuisine, from northern Italy, is simple, straightforward, undecorated and almost always startling in the clarity of its flavors and play of textures. At dinner last week, I started with a plate of bresaola with arugula, celery and parmigiano dressed with lemon and olive oil ($7). Ullio is serving bresaola from Valtellina, the alpine valley in Lombardy where it is air cured. Delicate and moist, without a streak of fat, and cut so thin it's almost translucent, the Italian dried, salted beef melts in the mouth while the arugula provides a peppery crunch.

Wayne's starter also included arugula with the same dressing, but featured sweet roasted beets played against tart Granny Smith apples with hazelnuts ($7).

The pastas here are marvels — pappardelle with wild boar ragu, and ravioli filled with ricotta and radicchio in a sweet gorgonzola sauce, for example — but we made other choices. For me: the risotto with shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, squid and octopus ($16). Ullio's risottos are certainly the best I've ever had in Atlanta. The carnaroli rice takes forever to cook and it's almost amazing the kitchen has the time to prepare it. When it comes to the table, the rice is velvety but with an al dente resistance. The frutti de mare, the seafood, is tender, with only the mussels, miserably small things, deserving to be ignored. There is another risotto version featuring four cheeses, another with mushrooms and a kinky one with caramelized onions, balsamic vinegar and parmigiano.

Wayne ordered the restaurant's signature dish — a whole wood-roasted fish, which was pompano that evening ($22). The fish is boned at the table by a server who seems capable of performing the operation blindfolded.

For dessert we had the Valrhona chocolate soup — a heady creation w

ith nuts and cream and croutons served in a cafe au lait cup — and panna cotta, "cooked cream," probably the city's finest: shimmering, gold, not an air bubble in it, no silly sauce to distract the palate.

A few days later, we decided to check out Ullio's other restaurant, directly next door. Fritti (311 N. Highland Ave., 404-880-9559) takes its name from the fried snacks the Italians enjoy, but the main dish here is amazing pizzas — 33 of them. Don't worry. None of them are weird in the way we've come to expect. There's no Hawaiian or Cajun pizzas.

Wayne ordered the quattro stagioni, "four seasons," each of whose four slices featured different ingredients — cotto ham, artichokes, mushrooms and olives ($12.50). Like all the pizzas here it was made with San Marzano tomatoes and a thin crust, cooked in the restaurant's super-hot, state-of-the art oven. I love all of the pizzas here. The only thing I dislike is the way the center of the pie is always a bit gooey. I prefer the periphery's drier crust.

My favorite fried antipasto here is the mushrooms. Crimini, portabella and shiitake mushrooms are fried in a rice-flour batter and seasoned with rosemary and truffle oil ($7). The shrooms maintain their creamy texture inside the crispy coating. We also ordered an asparagus and arugula salad with hazelnuts and reggiano with olive oil and lemon ($7). The dish included only three large stalks of asparagus and, sad to say, their flavor was quite bland. You should order the pesci fritti, fried whole smelts with lemon. I want fried anchovies or sardines, but I've given up. When restaurants try them here, they never seem to sell.

For my own entree, I ordered the wood-roasted leg of lamb ($17). Seasoned with garlic and rosemary, medium-rare slices were served over roasted potatoes and zucchini with a scattering of caramelized onions. Put on your Easter bonnet and order the springtime favorite.

Fritti, like Sotto Sotto, is very stylish, quite a bit more designed than its neighbor. Premium seats are on the patio and you better call for a reservation. We didn't and got stuck in a corner in the back. The big garage door-style window was wide-open and we got plenty of fresh air, anyway.

We also visited Mambo (1402 N. Highland Ave., 404-876-2626), long our favorite for Cuban food. The restaurant has debuted some new dishes, which we wanted to try.

Wayne's costilla a lo cubano ($17) was delicious but staggering in its proportions. It's a huge pork chop stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese. The menu suggests you think of it as a Cuban sandwich on steroids. Exactly. It was served over saffron rice. I can't imagine eating such a thing without wearing a blood-pressure cuff, but Wayne polished the plate.

Another challenging newcomer is a "napoleon" that layers two 3-ounce grilled filets with a Portabella mushroom cap ($18). You can have it sauced with Bacardi's Ciclon rum or, as I selected, an Argentine-style chimichurri sauce that combines garlic and parsley in oil. The triple-decker creation is served over manchego-spiked mashed potatoes (which need a good bit more manchego). The dish is tasty but in all honesty I'd prefer a simple grilled steak well anointed in chimichurri.

A new starter you should not miss is the smoked salmon martini — salmon with rum-spiked tomato salsa, avocado and a couple of crispy fried banana slices ($7). It's an interesting take on ceviche (and the black ceviche, featuring squid ink, here remains my favorite). We also ordered a plate of hot chorizos sauteed with sweet peppers, onions and garlic ($7). It was an enormous portion, plenty for two.

For dessert, order one of the flans, like an espresso-flavored one. I also like the classic tres leches.

Of course, an alternative is to go next door to What's the Scoop? for gelato. I stopped by for my favorite dulce de leche and found the moderately crowded shop staffed by only one affable employee who had to dip ice cream, make crepes and remain unflustered. It was a very long wait but one with a sweet reward.

An alternative to gelato at the opposite end of North Highland is Jake's, on the other side of Ponce de Leon. It's the city's best ice cream, with all the richness of gelato but the melting beauty of classic American ice cream.

Here and there

I neglected to mention last week how long Santino's di Roma had been open when I reviewed it two weeks ago. It had been open a week. That may be relevant to readers because restaurants sometimes overcome a rocky start.

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

Where to Eat
Food Events