Restaurant Review - CAFFE MIDTOWN

Uh-oh. I have that familiar, queasy feeling the first time I walk into Caffe Midtown. It's uncomfortably empty, with only a lone server busying himself behind the bar. The mahogany-stained tables set with cobalt blue goblets look forlorn in their neat, solitary rows. Nestled on the corner of Eleventh and Peachtree streets — with condos, businesses, clubs and theaters all in near walking distance — this place should have a bustling, built-in clientele.

Perhaps the locals know something I don't?

But I resist the urge to bolt. A friend and I glance down the concise Italian menu: simple pastas, sandwiches, classic salads, inexpensive meat and fish dishes. Hmmm. We place our order and I sit back in my chair, oozing skepticism.

The salads arrive. Generous slices of gossamer beef carpaccio are fanned around a peppery surge of chopped arugula. Shaved Parmesan, minced celery and olive oil complete the vivid composition. The tomatoes in the Caprese salad are decent (the best that can be expected this time of year), but the uncommonly creamy lobes of delicate bufala mozzarella are a reminder of how sublime this overdone dish can be.

Next comes al dente bowtie pasta with fresh lumps of crab in a flirtatious white wine sauce with diced tomato. It's the kind of satisfying pasta dish that makes you sneer rebelliously at low-carb diets. Filet mignon comes topped with a lump of herb butter that could easily gloss a full stack of pancakes. I use just enough of the butter to coat the top of the meat, push it to the side and then revel in the steak. It's properly seared, mellow and tender — just the way filet should be. There's a pile of crispy, hot roasted potatoes alongside. The portion isn't huge, but it costs a mere 15 bucks.

Um, wow. This is some solid cooking. Turns out I know something the locals don't. Why isn't this place crawling with customers?

It doesn't conform to the Atlanta aesthetic, for one thing. The space, located beside Vision nightclub, has a mighty low glitz factor. It looks like the waiting room of a quick-lube chain that's been gussied up with a long bar, quirky art and a plasma TV hung in one corner.

And this particular corner has seen better days. Diagonally across the street is the dilapidated strip of shops that once housed Pasta da Pulcinella in its mid-'90s glory days. The action seems to have since moved down a few blocks to the area surrounding Metropolis lofts. Parking can also be a challenge, particularly during the day when a quarter gets you a measly seven-and-a-half minutes on a two-hour meter.

What the place lacks in cache, though, it makes up for in creds. Marco Betti, who owns ebullient Antica Posta in Buckhead, may have chosen a modest location for his second Atlanta restaurant, but the chow hums with integrity. That bowtie number with crab? It isn't an aberration. I've yet to encounter a bowl of pasta here that disappoints.

Gemelli with proscuitto and peas is enveloped in a balanced cream sauce that never becomes cloyingly rich — even when you're wiping the bowl clean with a square of freshly baked focaccia. And the house-made spinach and ricotta ravioli shine under a precise blanket of chunky, clean-tasting tomato sauce. Yay. It's a relief to eat Italian food that isn't overwrought or ostentatious.

That said, panini sandwiches are a little too restrained. I like my panini to gush when I bite into it. I get gush — and toasty crunch — from a variation with mozzarella, red peppers and arugula. But the Mortadella with a little cheese and slivers of zucchini? It's just a fancy bologna sandwich.

I'll go for the hamburger instead. The patty is a modest size, and the thin slices of Asiago cheese are melted gently over the top. It comes with a grilled bun, one slice of tomato and a single leaf of lettuce — chaste, but just right somehow. It reminds me of the kind of burger you get in Europe, away from America's "Where's the beef?" mentality. The burger with a bowl of elemental, gutsy Minestrone makes a superb noontime meal.

Sadly, my love affair with the menu goes belly-up when it comes to desserts. The sweets are on display, pre-made and sitting there for God knows how long, in a deli case in the corner. They do not look appetizing under the glow of fluorescent lights. In fact, they look suicidal.

A server mentioned that the tiramisu is a recipe from Betti's family, but it's a bland version that needs to pump up the coffee and alcohol content. Maybe the ingredients just aren't as good over here as they are in Tuscany? Panna cotta drizzled with raspberry sauce tastes like a Sara Lee cheesecake that never quite set. Speaking of which, a strawberry cheesecake is topped with chocolate mousse. It is both unsightly and ill conceived. If you must have dessert, go for a piece of pound cake. Otherwise, a bracing Illy espresso is the best option.

The dessert quandary is perhaps indicative of the innate challenge this establishment faces. It's obvious that Betti has struggled to define Caffe Midtown: Is it a neighborhood bistro? A hangout where you can get a good strong cup of joe? For my money, I'd place it squarely in the category appropriate to first dates (there's something pleasing for every taste) and relaxed nights out with amigos.

But really, when the food is this soulful and this affordable, definitions are superfluous. Head over and check out this underdog before the rest of the city discovers it.