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Feedbag - Oh, Brother

Come with a crowd to Fratelli di Napoli

I was with a group of 14 the last time I dined at Fratelli di Napoli. It was a holiday dinner with co-workers. We all felt awkward trying to talk about non-work things, so we drank too much and laughed a lot and talked really loud. There were giant platters of spaghetti and many bottles of wine - and that's about all I remember. So here's my theory: Big parties are what Fratelli does best. The booze and food flow freely, and with all the distractions, you can't help but have a good time. Going with a small group recently was an entirely different experience, though.

Things started out well enough. We arrived late for our reservation, but the hostess ushered us straight to a table. Our server came over and gave us a quick run-down: Fratelli's menu is family-style (meaning enormous portions). He advised that two entrees, a salad and a pasta would probably be enough for the four of us.

After 20 minutes of bickering, we decided on a salad and pasta to share, and then half-orders of entrees for each of us (still huge, by the way). Tomato and mozzarella salad was a mountain of luscious, ripe tomato and chunks of fresh mozzarella tossed with greens and tangy balsamic vinaigrette. I also loved the chicken marsala - sauteed chicken cutlets mingled with wild mushrooms in a smoky-sweet marsala wine sauce brightened by fresh tomatoes. The table favorite was rigatoni in vodka sauce, and though the creamy, vodka-spiked tomato sauce was indeed delicious, the noodles were mushy.

Things went down from there. Sirloin saltimbocca, highly recommended by the server, didn't much resemble a traditional saltimbocca: A gristly strip steak sported melted provolone, prosciutto and mushrooms on top. Velvety port wine reduction was the dish's saving grace.

Fusilli gamberi, a tumble of garlicky shrimp, black olives, tomatoes, peppers and corkscrew pasta, tasted like mediocre pasta salad. And it was as bland and forgettable as the version Aunt Gertie foists on everyone at the annual family picnic.

Our server was - to put it kindly - quirky. He seemed to be on fast-forward: fumbling the specials, coming by our table a little too often, re-filling a glass of Pellegrino with tap water (then falling all over himself to replace everyone's glass of water, not just the one he botched).

I felt bad for the guy, until he brought out a full portion of an expensive entrée rather than the half portion we'd ordered. As he set it down, he apologized for the kitchen's mistake. No big deal, right? Except he expected us to pay for food we didn't order. And when he realized we weren't interested in paying for the "kitchen's mistake," he took it away and brought back a half portion. Who does that? Even if he wasn't a sneaky jerk trying to squeeze extra money out of us, he sure came across that way.

It certainly wasn't the worst meal of my life. But being with a smaller group, I was sharply aware of Fratelli di Napoli's shortcomings. So next time you're hosting, say, a rehearsal dinner, Fratelli may be worth considering. Otherwise, pass it by.

florence.byrd@creativeloafing.comChef Shuffle
Changes are afoot at La Tavola in the Highlands. Craig Richards has been named executive chef. Richards arrives after a stint at Lidia's in Pittsburgh, where he prepared regional Italian food and developed seasonal menus with culinary doyenne Lidia Bastianich. He brings eight years of culinary experience and a vast knowledge of Italian cookery to La Tavola, where guests will begin to see his influence in the menu at the beginning of August. 992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430. www.fifthgroup.com.

Freaky Tiki
Trader Vic's hosts its monthly Tiki Torch Night Sat., July 23. This month's event will feature music from Slip and the Spinouts from Ft. Lauderdale, Cherry Capri from Los Angeles and Atlanta-based Tongo Hiti, as well as performances by Dames Aflame burlesque dancers, tiki artists, and exotic prizes. Look for complimentary hors d'oeuvres from 8-10 p.m. and $4.50 Mai Tais. Free for dinner guests and $5 for non-diners. The $5 cover charge includes a chance to win a dance from Chinita of Dames Aflame and a Temptation Potion. 255 Courtland St., 404-221-6339. www.tradervicsatlanta.com.

Tour de France
Iris continues its series of regional dinners Mon., June 27. This month's focus is Languedoc and Roussillon. The five-course tasting menu is $65 with wine pairings, $48 without. 1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-221-1300. www.irisatlanta.com.

Cucina Italiana
If you're more in the mood for Italian, head over to Sotto Sotto for its monthly Tour of Italy dinner Tues., July 26. This month's focus is the Italian region of Campania. The four-course menu is $39 per person. 313 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-6678. www.sottosottorestaurant.com.

Get Toasted
On Wed., July 27, Toast will host a beer tasting featuring the beers of Atlanta Brewing Company. Ten dollars gets you unlimited pours of Peachtree Pale Ale, Laughing Skull, Hefeweisen, and Red Brick Ale. Chef Drew Van Leuvan will also be serving up homemade pretzels and sausages for $5 per person. 5:30-10 p.m. 817 W. Peachtree St., 404-815-9243. www.toastrestaurant.com.??





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