Restaurant Review - The art of good Italian

Appetizers and pastas well-rendered at Di Paolo

"Did they hang that painting for Halloween?" My friend gestures to the looming image of a demonic-looking friar adorning the wall of Di Paolo's otherwise cozy dining room. Scary Monk Guy — as he is christened during one visit — inevitably becomes a topic of conversation every time I eat here. Far from being a seasonal decoration, the foreboding countenance has presided over this paean to Italian cuisine for some years now. His spooky, blank eyes seem to follow guests across the room. He looks like the kind of meanie that Shaggy and Scooby would flee from, shouting "Zoinks!" over their shoulders as they scamper away.

The heap of fettuccine upon which Scary Monk Guy is supping, however, looks surprisingly fetching, and is a keen indication of the satisfying meals to be had here.

Di Paolo is housed in a shopping center off Holcomb Bridge Road, in that nebulous area where Norcross, Alpharetta and Roswell intermingle with one another. Owner Susan Thill has continually evolved her restaurant over the last seven years, from a designer pizza and pasta joint in its early days (when the word "cucina" was attached to the moniker) to its current status as an upscale destination worthy of braving Ga. 400 North. The staff is welcoming and wonderfully devoid of Buckhead 'tude.

Many of the offerings on Di Paolo's menu still reflect the influence of recently departed chef Joshua Perkins, whose well-conceived dishes, employing unusual but authentic flavor combinations, are an appreciated departure from the standard offerings found in most Italian restaurants around metro Atlanta. It's evident Thill and her current chefs are continuing with Perkin's vision when the picture-perfect tasting of cold antipasti ($15) is set before us. "They should hang a painting of this on the wall!" one wit at our table quips.

The luminary of the plate is a rabbit pate made voluptuous with mascarpone cheese and draped seductively over a wedge of almost smoky roasted pear. I hog most of the pate for myself. Other treats on the tasting platter include house-cured salmon partnered with a delicate napoleon layered with herbed ricotta, tender venison loin with Venetian curry oil and Tuscan white beans (which are cooked too al dente for my taste), and a roasted red pepper salad with roasted garlic vinaigrette and smoked mozzarella. Undercooked beans aside, sharing this dish is the best way to begin a meal here.

Hot appetizers don't dazzle quite as much as their cold counterparts, but several still stand out. Four roasted scallops ($12) are wrapped in speck (Italian bacon) and served in a silky saffron lobster sauce. Though there are precious few bites for such a steep price, the sweet scallops, the salty bacon and the complex, elusive flavor of the saffron meld memorably. Baccala (Venetian salt cod) is intensely saline, but marries well with endive, roasted garlic puree, and polenta ($9). Black truffle risotto ($10) is cooked to impeccable creaminess, and the portion size is just right as an appetizer.

Pastas are the star of the show. I'm already plotting to return for the panzoti di salsiccia e mele ($16); little pasta pillows stuffed with sausage and granny smith apples, cooked just until supple but toothsome and swaddled in brown butter sauce. Pasta da Pulcinella in Midtown serves a similar creation, but this one is way better.

Several hearty pasta dishes are ideal for chilly fall nights. Buckwheat pappardelle ($18) comes tangled with tender duck confit drizzled with white truffle oil. Tajarin ($13) is a rich, Piedmontese version of fettuccine made golden by a prodigious amount of egg yolks and tossed with a homey ragu of ground pork, veal and beef.

The only clunker I try in the pasta category is the linguine with seafood in a saffron-tomato broth ($18). There is a not-so-fresh taste amidst the jumble of sea creatures the night I try it.

Entrees are Di Paolo's weak spot. Though I can't outright pan any I try, neither do most offer the same pizzazz as the preceding courses. Roasted chicken breast ($17) wrapped in prosciutto is a bit on the dry side and tastes like the sort of thing you might as well stay home and cook yourself. Rack of lamb ($23) needs more supportive oomph than it receives from currants and braised shallots.

The one entree I recommend without reservation is the pork tenderloin ($19), enlivened by dollops of fruit salsa and tangy mustard sauce. Lest the whole affair becomes too sweet, a creamy, pungent cauliflower souffle is placed is the middle of the plate and adds indispensable balance. The kitchen would do well to follow suit with more conceptions like this frontrunner.

It's also time to take the cheese course ($12) to the next level. With so many outstanding and intriguing options available, these folks can do better than three dull variations on Pecorino. The accompanying dried fruit compote measures up, but the white truffle brioche is stale and hard when I sample it.

Keep an eye out for seasonal dessert specials, which best show off the kitchen's creativity in the sweets department. The torta di zucca ($6), a moist pumpkin cake layered with brown sugar mascarpone and set atop a nutmeg and brandy-infused creme anglaise, is a tasty riff on Thanksgiving with an Italian accent.

It's encouraging to visit a restaurant that gets better and better as each year passes. Now if only they'd remove Scary Monk Guy from his place of prominence and put him somewhere else. How about down that long, dark hall in the back where the restrooms are located?