First Looks: Baroni and Piola

As the pizza wars wane, two newcomers find their niche

I sense some waning of the pizza wars. Oh, diehard foodies are still debating the comparative merits of a few standouts, but many have moved on to hamburgers and street food. Hot dogs are on the horizon. Frappuccinos made with new shades of Pepto-Bismol are under study in Seattle.

I find the recessionary dining scene a bit depressing. It's not like I have any money and wish Guenter Seeger was back in town, but let's get real. Hamburgers, pizza and most street food — no matter how you dress them up — are fattening kiddie food.

Some finesse the new fast food better than others. Two such places, both focused on pizza, have opened recently — Piola Pizzeria and Baroni. Both provide full service, tasty food, relatively low prices and a hospitable, uncontrived vibe.

Baroni (1745 Peachtree St., 404-724-9100, www.baroniatl.com) is the more serious restaurant of the two. It comes from the same folks who operate Baraonda and Publik House, both within spitting distance of the Fox Theatre. Baraonda opened 10 years ago and was, with Fritti, among the first in the city to offer a thin, Napoli-style pizza with gourmet toppings, cooked in a wood-fired brick oven. I've not visited Baraonda in a few years, but I used to be a regular — before parking in the area became a freakin' nightmare.

There's no problem parking at the new Baroni. It's taken the space vacated (thank God) by Wolfgang Puck Express in Brookwood Place. There's plenty of free parking in the rear. The new owners have left Puck's interior architecture in place, but have created a much warmer atmosphere. I've lunched at the bar in front of the totally open kitchen and at a separate bar where booze is not yet served, but soon will be. And I've eaten dinner on the pleasant patio.

The crowd here is mainly from the neighborhood, according to one of my servers. It's a prosperous part of town and, when I dined there at night, we were seated among a group of obvious cosmetic surgery enthusiasts. It's not every day you get to see five people who look like dolphins picking at pizza. But they were a fun group.

The menu is divided into pizza, bruschetta, pasta and a few entrées, along with antipasto and a selection of mozzarellas with accompaniments such as cured meats, grilled vegetables, fresh tomatoes and basil. The menu of cheeses is somewhat broader at night than at lunchtime. There's a tempting Burrata then, but we ordered the bufala mozzarella with speck, arugula and basil. While most of the mozzarellas here are domestic, the bufala is imported and one slice tasted a bit sour, as frequently happens with imported mozzarella. The rest of it was very good.

Of the many pizzas, I've only sampled the margherita, featuring the usual tomato, mozzarella and basil. Just as I expected, the pizza was tasty but not up to the standards of pizza warriors Varasano's and Antico. Baroni is using a gas oven, not a wood-fired one, so you don't get an intense taste of highly coveted char, but you do get enough of it to not feel cheated. The use of basil on the pie was stingy. A few clippings were piled at the center and more seemed to be scattered under the cheese.

I've tried one pasta dish — veal meatballs over spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce. The al dente pasta provided a pleasing contrast to the silky, slightly salty meatballs. An order of bruschetta topped with thick chunks of roasted duck and black-olive tapenade was intense. I ate it as my entrée during dinner.

A lamb panino at lunch was the most problematic meal I ordered. The lamb was sliced very thick and put between the bread as a single piece. It was about impossible to bite through the lamb without mangling it. The kitchen needs to slice the lamb thinner or cut it into smaller pieces.

The second most problematic dish was a fried cutlet of chicken topped with arugula and cherry tomatoes. (You can also order a veal cutlet.) It wasn't bad but the chicken's taste was lackluster. The tomatoes and arugula actually created the most flavor.

Baraonda's tiramisù is loved by many and it's on the menu at Baroni, too. I prefer a darker, more intense tiramisù, but there's no way to dislike this version. One serving is quite enough for two.

Piola in Midtown

Piola (1080 Peachtree St., 404-249-7019, www.piola.it) is a franchise chain that originated in Italy and is all over the globe now, from Turkey to Brazil. The Atlanta location faces 11th Street, next door to RA Sushi. You can park free for two hours in the building. Look for the garage entrance on Crescent Avenue.

The décor at Piola reminds me of a box of crayons. There are hanging lights in primary colors and lots of red and gold on the walls and furniture. We were surprised during our dinner to hear a live singer with a guitar perform. He did not sing "Puff the Magic Dragon."

We ordered two appetizers. Wayne opted for an arugula and Parmesan salad atop a plate papered with carpaccio. I ordered the "vignole," crispy little shells filled with a bit of chicken, a lot of corn and a tiny bit of chili peppers. Both hit the spot.

Although there are a few pastas and entrées on the menu, we both chose pizza. Mine, the Ragusa, was topped with pancetta, Gorgonzola, mozzarella and tomato sauce. Wayne's featured mozzarella, anchovies, oregano and tomato sauce. I preferred Wayne's. The pancetta on my pizza was sunk in the Gorgonzola so that its flavor was completely overwhelmed by the cheese. But the pizza, made in a brick oven, had all the right features otherwise. You get your thin crust. You get your bubbling blisters. You get your firm but slightly gooey texture. And, of course, you get your imperative char.

For dessert, we ordered the largest single serving of tiramisù we'd ever seen. It was a cut below Baroni's, but nothing kept me from wanting to lick the plate.

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