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Update: Sotto Sotto

After a decade, Riccardo Ullio's restaurant is still among the city's best

About 16 years ago, Wayne dragged me to a tiny, inexpensive restaurant on Peachtree Street in Midtown. Pasta da Pulcinella was a block from his condo and served pasta unique to the city. It wasn't drenched in tomato sauce and it married flavors such as walnuts and eggplant. Although my first experience there was not altogether positive, I soon became — like everyone else in Midtown — a fan of the restaurant, which eventually moved to its current roomier bungalow on Peachtree Walk.

The chef, also a partner in the venture, was Riccardo Ullio. He left the restaurant and, despite holding a master's degree in environmental engineering from Georgia Tech, went on to work at other Atlanta restaurants, including Pricci.

In 1999, he opened Sotto Sotto (313 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-6678, www.sottosottorestaurant.com). It instantly became known as the city's best Italian restaurant. Sotto Sotto's dining room — relatively small and dominated by a wall that could belong to a Roman ruin — drew the city's pretty people and foodies alike. Its emphasis was northern Italian cuisine, which, outside pricey La Grotta in Buckhead, was not well known in Atlanta. In fact, Sotto Sotto dethroned La Grotta as best Italian restaurant in the city in many polls.

Wayne and I returned to Sotto Sotto last week with his mother for their birthdays; it had been a year or more since our last visit. It was a Sunday night and the restaurant was doing fairly brisk business. I noticed that two other large tables erupted into the "Happy Birthday" song during our meal and that points to something of concern. While Sotto Sotto has never been cheap, it's become something of a special-occasion restaurant in the current economy. If you stick to pastas (all well under $20), as we did, you'll come out OK. Our bill for three starters, three entrée pastas and one dessert was about $96, excluding tip and with no alcohol. You don't need to eat that much, so your bill will likely be less.

I wasn't actually trying to force the birthday-celebrating Wayne and his mom to eat cheap, but I wanted to try the summer menu's newbies, none of which were among the heartier secondi.

Chef Adam Waller seems quite taken with blueberries. They, along with heirloom tomatoes (both locally sourced) were part of more than a few dishes. We actually encountered the blueberries three times. They were tossed with arugula, almonds, red onion, lemon and olive oil in Wayne's salad starter. The fruity-sweet contrast with the peppery arugula was pleasant if a bit hard to handle with a fork.

But the more interesting dish, new to me, was my risotto with blueberries. The carnaroli rice was blended with primitivo wine, Parmesan cheese and chives, as well as the berries. The dish did not make an attractive presentation in low lighting, since its blue color does not show up well. But its taste was far more complex than its relentlessly dark appearance. Cheese dominated the flavor but was interrupted by blasts of blueberry. The dish, like all of Sotto Sotto's risottos, was very rich. I would've been happy with a half-portion, which can be ordered with any of the pastas.

The blueberries made their final appearance as a garnish on a slice of cheesecake the kitchen sent out as birthday gift, providing the most naked taste of the summertime favorite.

Tomatoes are peaking in flavor right now and they are best experienced, in my opinion, in a classic caprese salad. Few of the city's restaurants bother to import the highly perishable mozzarella di bufala from Italy, but it makes a huge difference in Sotto Sotto's version of the salad. The slightly salty, milky-but-spongy cheese goes perfectly with the sweet, slightly sour tomato.

Raw, chopped tomatoes, along with cucumbers and onions, were also part of my starter, a farro (barley) salad. I enjoyed the farro itself, but found the rest of the salad boring. You'll pay more, but go for the caprese.

The kitchen is also making ample use of walnuts — they were featured in two entrées we sampled. Wayne's mom, at his insistence, ordered ravioli stuffed with eggplant and walnuts in a tomato-basil sauce. Wayne said this was his favorite dish years ago at Pasta da Pulcinella. Anything with fresh eggplant is good by me.

Wayne ordered pansotti, "pot-belly ravioli," filled with wild dandelion and mustard greens. It was served with salsa di noci, a creamy walnut sauce that classically accompanies pansotti.

Besides the cheesecake, we also shared an order of Wayne's favorite dessert here, the chocolate soup afloat with croutons and whipped cream. Somehow, the server managed to set a candle upright in the bowl. Wayne's mom blew it out. I did not sing. Nor did the staff, which added to their general perfection.

Ullio adventurously opened two neighboring restaurants in Midtown in the last few years — Beleza and Cuerno (which later became Lupe Taqueria). Sadly, due to the crashing economy and a somewhat controversial location, he had to close both. But Sotto Sotto and Fritti are still exceptional, despite some serious competition. After 11 years, that's no small feat.



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