Review: Antica Posta - Wow factor

Antica Posta transforms big Buckhead into Little Italy

After coming to view Buckhead as the land where the restaurant-as-theme-park lives, it was nice to discover Antica Posta, which survives as a holdout of old-fashioned charm. The newer bar area at the front of the restaurant is closer to the scene-and-be-seen vibe befitting the neighborhood, but even the high ceilings and black-clad bartenders don't manage to obscure the Old World feel of the place. Once you make it to the dining room in back — with its intimate tables, fussily dressed waiters and the almost shabby Venetian blinds — the glitz of Buckhead falls decidedly away. This is as close as Atlanta comes to Little Italy — or big Italy, for that matter.

In the United States, I have come to expect one of two things from an Italian restaurant. There is a special place in my heart for Americanized Italian food — that fattening, red sauce-laden, melted cheese-bearing stuff that has its roots in Southern Italian cooking. But most Italian restaurants that have truly wowed me are more authentic and have focused less on pasta and more on Italy's other culinary bounty — roasted meats, seafood, grilled vegetables, polenta. Apart from ravioli, which has edged its way into the repertoire of almost every chef in America, it's rare in a restaurant for me to be truly won over by a pasta dish.

But pasta is what Antica Posta does best. Take the simple gemelli pasta with prosciutto, green peas and fresh cream. The tight spiral of pasta was a revelation to my teeth, beyond al dente, springy and yielding and perfect. The sauce could have easily veered toward cloying richness but remained light, letting the spring flavor of the peas shine through the cream and bacony flavor. I tried to keep from scarfing up my entire bowl, knowing that I needed to save room for the many other dishes I had ordered, but I was unable to resist.

Antica Posta is a Tuscan restaurant, and many of the dishes feature the hearty meat sauces of that region. The spinach and ricotta ravioli with Tuscan meat sauce proved a fantastic vehicle for the ground meat flavored with wine and spices. The ravioli were pillows of spinach and cheese, their casing delicate sheets of silky pasta.

Another place where Antica Posta excels is salads. The simple salad of arugula and shaved parmigiano is delicious, but I suggest you fork over the extra buck and get the beef carpaccio, which is basically the same salad draped with paper-thin slices of beef.

I also recommend getting an order of the fagioli zolfino, the famous Tuscan white beans, which are served here simply flavored with extra virgin olive oil. It is the simplicity of dishes like this that highlight Italian cooking at its best.

There are dishes here that failed to hit these highs. The gnocchi with pesto was respectable but a little too gummy for my taste, and not interesting enough to eat a whole bowl's worth. The risotto of the day — porcini mushrooms on a recent evening — had a curious and heavy sweetness to it that could not rightfully be attributed to the mushrooms and ruined the dish for me. The huge swordfish steak that I was served was too salty for me to eat, and came with a sauce on the side that seemed to be made primarily of salt as well. (I'm a bit of a salt fiend, and it's hard to scare me off, particularly from such an inviting-looking piece of fish.)

But let's get back to the good stuff — because there sure is a lot of it. The braised veal shank ossobuco offered a portion of bone marrow inside the shank that could have made a hearty meal unto itself. To me, musky, gelatinous bone marrow is the most sublime substance that can be gleaned from an animal, and I felt a stab of sadness when I thought of all the people who order this dish and probably let the marrow go back to the kitchen. Once I scooped out the bone, I heartily enjoyed the rest of the dish — tender meat in a wine-infused stew rich with rosemary.

If you dine on a day when squash blossoms are available as a special, don't pass them up. There's a particular satisfaction to the dichotomy of taking something as fresh as squash blossoms and deep-frying them. They come out crispy and lightly oily, but with that garden freshness shining through.

Desserts here don't live up to the rest of the menu, and if you're like me, you'll be too stuffed, anyway. Don't sweat it; you're not missing anything mind-blowing. Instead, take the time to finish your wine, perhaps one of the many super Tuscans or lovely Italian whites the list offers. Order a coffee and relax — this is a restaurant where they won't rush you, where they practically encourage you to sit for as long as you'd like. And if you're really still hungry, cut your losses and order another bowl of pasta.