Restaurant Review - Buona fortuna

Terra di Siena's earthy Tuscan cooking means good luck for Midtown

Anybody can cook Italian, right? Just boil and drain a package of spaghetti, top the hot noodles with canned red sauce and sprinkle on the Kraft processed cheese. Hey, hey: Ciao chow.

Wrong. And it's not just that our palates have grown more sophisticated since Chef Boyardee suppers were succeeded by Wolfgang Puck frozen entrees. Even in New York, authentic Italian regional cooking is rare. Here in the South, it's easier to find an honest politician.

What good luck, then, that Siena native Riccardo Campinoti and his American fiancée Jenny Crowley have opened Terra di Siena in Midtown. Atlanta's only comparable opera-tion is Antica Posta in Buckhead. The 100-seat Terra di Siena, located in the Fox Theater complex, showcases the skills of Tuscan chef Filippo Saporito aided by three Italian-trained chef-assistants.

Saporito's dishes deliver on the promises made by the straightforward bilingual menu and the restaurant's right-this-minute decor. The wow-zing factor that many of us associate with overseas travel turns up again and again. One morsel of asparagus-stuffed ravioli topped with velvety pieces of fresh tomato was enough to convince me. The handmade, fresh pasta was properly al dente — with just a suggestion of texture to the bite. The garnish, four dainty asparagus batons, retained their crunch and springtime flavor. The portion was just large enough for an opening, rather than a full entree, course.

Ravioli specials are easy, right? But how shall I convince you to risk the rolled Guinea fowl breast stuffed with zucchini, carrots and minced meat of the hen that's served with wild fennel, lightly sautéed spinach and dabs of black olive paste? Should I say that the entree is closer to Tuscan sensibility than perhaps any other poultry dish in town? That the flavors are as clean and pure as Hemingway descriptions? That you should shell out $21 for the experience?

If you'll go there, what about cauliflower bisque with pancetta-wrapped grilled jumbo shrimp? The bisque, essentially a rough-cut puree, has a tart bite that stands up to the rich sweetness of the seared bacon and shrimp ($12). In a somewhat similar fashion, an entree of sea scallops topped with glazed almonds and pine nuts, which sounds simple, delivers a complex symphony of oceanic flavors that momentarily transported me back to the shores of the Adriatic ($23).

How long can such good times last? That probably depends on how well the restaurant is received, and whether Campinoti and Crowley can turn a profit without cutting quality and interest. (Calf's foot salad with parsley sauce has already been replaced by chicken salad with olive oil.) Given its aspirations, Terra di Siena's prices are not out of line. Figure on about $40 per person for three courses, before tax, tip or wine. Given its location — closer to the Varsity than to the condominiums of Lenox Road — the owners have their work cut out for them. But, factoring in the level of renewed restaurant investment in Midtown — Eno, Spice, Gordon Biersch, Flying Biscuit Cafe and so on — maybe luck will be in the proprietors' favor.

We can help punch up the odds. Here's a meal I had last week. We started with a small, delicate, utterly delicious pecorino flan, an individual portion that called to mind a warm ewe's milk cheesecake ($10). Perfect? Alas not, due to the unbalanced vegetable salad upon which the flan was perched. But memorable in itself, and fixable as a composition? Yes indeed. Just as memorable was a plate of three small bunches of baby asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, topped with Parmesan, glazed and served with black olive paste ($9).

Macaroni with pancetta and tomato sauce was equally hearty, old fashioned and delectable ($14). Osso buco, braised veal shank, was a surprise — tender but surprisingly sweet, the sauce almost fruity rather than red-wine heavy. Lightly sautéed onions on the side provide a sharp, welcome contrast to the sugar. Tough, tasteless triangles of fried polenta, a botch, would have been better left in the kitchen ($26).

Of the three desserts I tried, the best was a special, frozen orange custard with chocolate sauce and blood orange sections ($9). Inventive, unusual, refreshing and priced to match, this sweetener went fine with the flavorsome Illy coffee the restaurant serves.

Servers are gotten up in scruffy jeans, no doubt fashionable, and high-collared, uncomfortable-looking blouses that suggest a vaguely Russian pedigree. Servers move fast, and food is rushed to tables by runners as soon as it is plated. Because the restaurant was far from full on both my visits, I noticed staffers refilling glasses and checking half- finished plates much too often. On the other hand, butter came unbidden with the dish of crusty bread at the first meal but had to be asked for the second time around.

The furnishings are as Euro-contempo as the food. Cork and rubber floors, draperies suspended from pipes to close off private spaces, leather furniture, triangular plates, Italian light fixtures and granite table tops — it all feels so New York, so Milan, so now. The guy at the table behind us on the upper level was dining alone. For company, he was working his cell phone, talking to friends. Evidently he scored a date between the appetizer and the entree, because he left before dessert.

Lucky guy. Lucky us, too, to have a sandbox such as Terra di Siena to play in.

Contact Elliott Mackle at 404-614-2514 or Elliott.mackle@creativeloafing.com??