Review: Caffe Fortunato

Serious Italian in Marietta

There’s a new must-eat dish in town.

Imagine this: a wood-fire cooked pizza, the crust bubbled and charred, the red sauce tangy with just a hint of sweetness, the mozzarella melty and mellow. Bright green bursts of fresh basil punctuate every few bites with their floral, herbaceous perfume. Now imagine two farm eggs on the pizza, broken open and cooked by the fire so that the whites take on a creamy, almost cheese-like consistency, the yolks a dangerous rich sauce for the whole pie. Now imagine a dude, bent over this creation, shaving slivers of heady, earthy black truffle over the entire thing. Oh yeah.

Here we have the Uova E Tartufi pizza at Caffe Fortunato, the new Italian spot from Mike Fortunato. Fortunato made a name for himself back in 2007, when he opened Pizzeria Fortunato in Smyrna. The New York-style pizzeria earned CL’s Best Pizza award in 2008. While the pizzeria continues to thrive, Fortunato is out to conquer a new concept in a new town: upscale Italian in Marietta.

Given the background, it’s no surprise that Caffe Fortunato is delivering strong pizza, as well as other specialties regulars of the Smyrna location will recognize. The provolone in padella appears at both places — a cast iron skillet filled with sizzling, melting, gooey provolone cheese, with bread on the side for slathering. But let’s put aside similarities. It’s the differences that make the Caffe stand out.

The place feels very much like a neighborhood joint with a touch of class. This feeling is only heightened by Mike, who’s a charming and excitable host. He talks with a badabing-worthy Jersey accent, and his shtick is a larger-than-life jumble of Italian culinary hospitality, with a racy aside thrown in here and there. Vintage Italian food prints adorn the walls, and the fire from the pizza oven gives the dining room a flickering glow. The only thing that feels off is the soundtrack — a thumping mix of bad club hits that might provide comic relief in a 21st century version of A Night at the Roxbury. Fortunato himself is obviously a next generation restaurant guy, and I’m not asking for Sinatra or opera. But it’s weird to be eating handmade pasta, close your eyes and hear gym music.

The chef is Justin Cox, who came to Atlanta from New York and worked briefly at Restaurant Eugene. Fortunato’s rallying cry is that everything is made in house — from pastas to desserts. Of those pastas, the squid ink spaghetti is the best; a wicked black slick of noodles full of oceanic flavor, surrounded by shrimp, clams and calamari. The dish’s funk is calmed and brightened by diced zucchini, and the its spaghetti avoids the mushy downfall of many of the other pastas.

Spaghettini comes bathed in a red sauce alongside huge veal meatballs, and it’s just too much for the delicate pasta to bear. Likewise, pappardelle is probably cooked perfectly, but once it’s loaded up with lamb ragu it continues to cook leaving the whole thing a tad soggy by the time it reaches the table. These are issues of nuance, and I appreciate a kitchen that’s willing to aim high with pasta that’s trickier to handle than the standard pre-bought stuff.

Another dish I’ll be back for is the rosticiana, an appetizer of pork ribs that are blackened and crispy, then fall apart to reveal a pink, piggy interior. The char and meat are swathed in a balsamic reduction that cuts through both.

Whole branzino (they’ll filet it for you if you don’t like fish heads, but I’ll point at you and laugh) is delicately cooked, the white flesh needing only the slight zing of olives and capers along with olive oil and cherry tomatoes to provide a spot of freshness.

The in-house treatment on desserts is absolutely worth the kitchen’s efforts, particularly the cannoli, which has the slightest hint of orange in its interior and all the interplay and tension between brittle pastry and creamy ricotta that defines the best of the genre. Fresh ricotta cheesecake comes in a close second, neither too sweet nor too hefty, a cake that tastes like actual cheese in the subtlest, best of ways.

With appetizers around $9, pastas averaging $17 and meat entrées upward of $26, Caffe Fortunato isn’t a cheap outing. But the care and personality on display are heartening. Fortunato has opened a restaurant with a big heart, big flavors, and one hell of a pizza. Marietta, I’m jealous of your egg pizza. Now there’s something I never thought I’d say.