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Figo's Decatur duplicate disappoints, plus more Mexican eats

It's a rare restaurateur who can duplicate the good quality of his original venue at multiple locations. I'm sorry to say that Mirko di Giacomantonio and Sandro Romagnoli, owners of Figo Pasta, do not seem to be among them.

Like nearly everyone else, I loved the original Figo, a tiny shop on Collier Road where the two native Italians expected mainly to sell fresh pasta for take-out at low prices. The gimmick was irresistible. You mix and match your choice of noodles and sauces. The place was an instant hit, but most people did not want to take their food home. They wanted to eat it on the premises, at a counter with only a few stools.

The scene reminded me of the original Gianni's on Peachtree 20 years ago. There, the beloved owner-cook Maria prepared home-style meals served to diners at perhaps eight tables. Waiting, you stood inches from a table, glaring at diners who dallied over coffee and a cannoli. Everyone learned to dine without making eye contact with the buzzards thronging about each table.

Figo's owners soon opened a second location, Osteria Figo, in the space vacated by Mondo in the same west side development that houses Bacchanalia and Taqueria del Sol. Here, there are plenty of tables and a broader menu - and, most agree, food that doesn't seem quite up to the original venue's. Nonetheless, it has done bang-up business.

Now there's a third Figo in Decatur (627 College Ave., 404-377-2121). Arguably, it's the best looking of the three, with gold walls, lacquered brown pub tables and Campari posters, along with pasta framed behind glass, rather like an ant farm. There's a big patio for spillover from the relatively small dining room. And, like the other two restaurants, there are a lot of people gobbling up the food.

But we had a terribly mediocre meal during our visit last week. It started as soon as we sat down and were presented a basket of mealy white bread with no taste. A starter of polenta with melted Fontina cheese was confusing. One slice of the polenta was gooey while two others seemed to have been fried to the extent that they produced a skull-rattling crunch in the mouth. The Fontina was bland and too watery to cling to the overcooked polenta.

Another starter of fried cheese ravioli tasted mainly like crackers under a (decent) tomato sauce. Entrees were better. A special of penne with a Gorgonzola sauce (just this side of watery) and a few walnuts was an example of the way simplicity trumps complexity. Another special, ravioli stuffed with ground shrimp under a tomato sauce with wilted arugula, was only acceptable. But if you like the seafood equivalent of mystery meat, you'll love it.

Dessert was just plain dreadful: old-tasting crepes filled with custard and garnished with some slimy strawberries.

Stick to simple pastas and sauces and you'll be happier here for the time being. My favorite sauce is the amatriciana - spicy and flavored with bits of pancetta. Generally, ravioli and shaped pastas beat the strand pastas.

More MexicanCantina La Casita (560 Gresham Ave., 404-622-8081) has opened in East Atlanta in the space vacated by Pasta Thyme. The owners have improved the space, creating the usual ambiance of Mad Max's lair that is requisite in Atlanta's funkiest gentrifying hood. There's a painting here that combines the sensibility of the Mexican obsession with the Virgin and those paintings of big-eyed children. It's kinda psychedelic, too. I want it.

The place is lubricating a good-sized crowd nightly with designer margaritas. Wayne and I conversed with total strangers like they were long-lost friends. Nothing like the tequila worm to help turn on the charm.

The food is surprisingly good. It's not killer, but it's mainly authentic border cuisine. Tacos made with corn tortillas are filled with fish, pork, carne asada, chicken stewed in green sauce, ground beef, or mushrooms with squash and onion (tres hongos). I like the chicken best and the ground beef least.

Enchiladas and burritos hit the spot and I was delighted to find "budin de tortillas," a dish I used to eat in trashy restaurants in Houston in the middle of the night. It's a casserole of tortilla chips with green sauce, cheese and your choice of meat. I picked the pulled pork.

Desserts ain't bad. I prefer the flan to the Key lime and lemon tart promoted by our server. ...

All right, having received a small avalanche of mail about food editor Bill Addison's favorable review of the McDonald's-owned Chipotle Mexican Grill, I decided to visit the Ponce location myself after Michael Tuohy of Woodfire Grill confessed his own taste for the place to me.

I have to say I was amazed. The place is making carnitas with Niman Ranch pork and they have more natural flavor than most you'll find on Buford Highway. The seasoning, redolent of juniper berries, is a cool variation. A burrito made with the carnitas, cilantro-lime rice, pinto beans and green sauce actually recalls memories of long-gone Tortillas. The restaurant is also using hormone-free chicken and beef. The steak actually tastes like steak. If you've tried the steak at Moe's, you know how unlike steak steak can taste.

Tuohy remarked that Chipotle is indicative of the coming change in the fast-food industry. "A lot of people are still eating junk but more and more people are wanting healthier choices," he said. "McDonald's wouldn't be jumping on this bandwagon if they hadn't seen the light."

My only complaint is the lack of a salsa bar. In each of my visits, I've had to ask for a second spoonful of salsa. And I paid for double meat at one visit. ...

News

The big news among foodies is that Kevin Rathbun is opening a Mediterranean wine bar, Krog Bar, in the same Stove Works complex that houses his hit namesake restaurant. The 40-seat bar will feature international wines, small plates and gelatos. Look for a July opening. The Johnson Studio - who else? - is in charge of design.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??



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