Relentlessly retro: Nino's and Alfredo's

Revisiting Italian favorites on Cheshire Bridge Road

If Atlanta had a red-light district, it would certainly be Cheshire Bridge Road. It's a great place to be arrested. Sex-toy stores, video arcades, gay sex clubs, and kinda-sorta strip clubs line the road and its side streets.

Amid the sea of dildos and bare breasts is a bunch of restaurants, including two — Nino's and Alfredo's — that are among the city's oldest (pizza-less) Italian-American spots. They are practically next door to one another and are both the kind of restaurant you have to love, even if the food and ambiance are determinedly, bizarrely retro. And rather expensive.

First, let's bust a classic myth to which I subscribed for years myself. Italian-American food is not a bastardization of "real Italian." It originated at the turn of the 20th century in the immigrant community of New York. Mostly from Southern Italy, the immigrants were perfectly capable of cooking their home country's food. But they could not find all the necessary ingredients, so they invented a tomato-heavy fusion cuisine often called "red-sauce Italian." If you're old enough, your unfortunate first taste of it may have been out of a can of Chef Boyardee.

Over the years, Italian-American has evolved to creatively enlist fresh, local American ingredients and techniques. The best example of that is Mario Batali's cooking at Babbo. Bruce Logue, who worked at Babbo and was opening chef of La Pietra Cucina here, used to say as much of his own approach. You would never accuse either chef of cooking clichés.

But that old-style, heavily cheesy, tomatoey cooking is mainly what you get at Alfredo's and Nino's. The sense that time has stood still is especially true of Alfredo's (1989 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-876-1380, www.alfredosatlanta.com), open since 1974 in a building that is weirdly reminiscent of a mobile home. It's too easy to make fun of the wood-paneled dining room so heavily mirrored it could be a carnival fun house. The art's as cheesy as the lasagna; fish ogle you from a huge aquarium behind the bar; and a diverse crowd of loyal diners munches happily on complimentary olives and greasy garlic bread.

The servers are still semiformally dressed in black and owner Perry Alvarez is still on hand, rubbing his hands together and welcoming you back to a lair likely haunted by Frank and Dino. When I had a minor misunderstanding about a dish I ordered, it was whisked off to the kitchen amid prayerful gestures, effusive apologies, and a bill reduction.

The food, alas, was a disappointment. I actually went to Alfredo's regularly years ago because it was the only restaurant in town that served scungilli (conch). It disappeared from the menu for a while but came back at some point. I was excited ... and then immensely let down. The conch itself was mainly overcooked with way too much garlic. It was mixed with an excessively reduced fra diavolo sauce and poured over angel hair pasta. I wanted to cry.

My entrée next door at Nino's (1931 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-874-6505, www.ninosatlanta.com), open since 1968, was even less agreeable. My favorite dish there in years past was owner Antonio Noviello's veal saltimbocca. This trip, the veal was chewy, the prosciutto was incredibly tough, and the cloyingly sweet wine sauce was obnoxiously overseasoned with sage. The restaurant's veal parmigiana was better, despite the usual super-heavy layers of cheese and heavy breading and thick red sauce.

Both restaurants seem to do better with seafood. Alfredo's straightforward snapper broiled in butter with a squeeze of lemon and garnished with capers was probably my favorite dish. Nino's two lobster tails, served over linguine, stood up better to its fra diavolo sauce than Alfredo's conch. A couple of perfectly charred, grilled prawns showed up on the mixed antipasti plate at Alfredo's.

Both restaurants' appetizers were of mixed quality. Do not order Alfredo's mushrooms stuffed with some weirdly tasteless pork stuff. Do not order Nino's mussels unless you like little knots of ocean gristle. I thought the best starter at either restaurant was Nino's simple caprese salad, made with tomatoes on the verge of summer flavor.

Desserts, flan at Alfredo's and tiramisù at Nino's, were both custardy-sweet. The super-smooth flan didn't have a single air pocket, but the tiramisù lacked the sharpness that espresso should add to the layered classic.

Service at both restaurants was excellent, but Brittany, at Nino's, was among the best servers I've encountered in a long time. She was knowledgeable, honest about her opinions, and held her own with a table of six not-very-charming men. She should open a school.

With all my complaining, sentimentality will always take me back to these two restaurants ... even if it takes 10 years.

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