First Look: Storico Fresco Ristorante e Alimentari

Local pasta maker serves up rustic Italian fare in Buckhead

In early June, Storico Fresco, the acclaimed Atlanta pasta maker, transformed into Storico Fresco Ristorante e Alimentari, a restaurant and Italian market that may soon achieve similar acclaim. To say this development was a big step for chef/partner Mike Patrick is putting it mildly. Storico Fresco formerly amounted to little more than a tiny counter in a somewhat hidden location. Now, the market/restaurant is one of the first tenants at the renovated Buckhead Exchange shopping center, with expansive counters full of pasta, cheeses, and cured meats; shelves stacked with a wide array of gourmet Italian staples; and a full service restaurant and bar with 100 seats, including a small outdoor patio.

While the size and scope of the new Storico Fresco is remarkable, the space retains an intimate, down-to-earth feel. The tables — ringed by market shelves and counters — are packed in close enough that they’re within inches of being communal. The simple wood and metal chairs come from an old school in Scandinavia, some of them still marked with stickers bearing the school’s name. Alas, no similar chairs could be found in Italy. The fact that Storico Fresco has built up a small legion of pasta-loving fans over the past five years can sometimes make the place feel like a club rather than a typical commercial endeavor. Everyone just seems happy to be there hanging out and sipping Italian wine.

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When dining at Storico Fresco, you can’t help but notice what’s on the table next to you — a plate piled high with bolognese, maybe, or an intriguing Italian wine made from a grape you’ve never heard of. Conversations across parties tend to ensue. On a recent Saturday night, less than a month into the restaurant’s life, the tables were packed. Seated next to us were two couples who had driven an hour from Carrollton just to try it out.

Though the restaurant’s hosts and servers are still getting into the groove of managing the dual space, blips in service are quickly forgiven as food and drinks arrive. Pasta is the obvious starting point (typically six types on offer, $10-$14 at lunch, $14-$22 at dinner), and the kitchen — including chef de cuisine Russell Hays — delivers Storico Fresco’s famous pastas at their al dente peak. Sure, you can buy the tagliatelle and Bolognese sauce over at the counter and cook it at home, but you’ll be hard pressed to make a plate of pasta as beautifully twirled and sauced as the one you’ll get here. The restaurant also offers new preparations you won’t find on the market side, like small hand-rolled tubes of lumachelle infused with lemon and cinnamon, and tossed with local arugula and Italian sausage ($18).

Almost everything I’ve tried across the varied menu has been on par with the pasta. The cooking techniques call upon historical preparations from the Italian countryside. Simple tends to be the guiding principle, though that doesn’t mean a lack of flavors or intriguing preparations. There are traditional fried appetizers like squash blossom packed with gooey ricotta and mozzarella ($9), or rustic antipasti like warm white beans tossed with chunks of tuna and brightly acidic lemon olive oil ($12). Among the secondi, standouts include a dish of two plump quail stuffed with spicy Italian nduja sausage and a handful of salty roasted olives ($18). Lunchtime replaces the secondi with a several panini selections ($10-$11), including one spread with chickpea purée topped with a mess of braised swiss chard and fresh mozzarella di bufala.

Veggie seekers should also turn to the insalatas and, come dinner time, contorni ($6-$12). A beautifully arranged plate of thinly sliced zucchini carpaccio (grown at local McMullan Farms from seeds that Patrick brought back from Italy) arrives topped with bright orange squash blossoms and scoops of mild fresh ricotta, all buttressed by a powerful peperoncino vinaigrette. Among the contorini, bitter rapini tossed with smoked ricotta and powerful Calabrian chili employs similar contrasts in flavor, though in a heartier manner.

Like the food inspirations, the wine menu hops through the regions of Italy, with eclectic food-friendly offerings that benefit from a bit of education. Unless, that is, you know what to expect from an Alto Adige lagrein or a Sicilian la segreta. Despite the unusual varietals — or maybe because of them — every table seemed to be graced with a bottle or two of wine.

It’s hard to leave Storico Fresco without eyeing the many prepared foods that are ready to go, spanning insalatas, timballo, pasta fresca, lasagna, sugo, pesto, meatballs. If you call ahead, you can even request alternate grain pastas employing rarities like spelt, barley, or chickpea.

Patrick and the Storico Fresco team clearly want to keep the place casual and welcoming, like “an Autostrada,” he says, “a quick stop for market goods but also with traditional antipasto, primi, secondi.”

While lunch and dinner are drawing the crowds currently, the restaurant will soon expand into afternoon aperitivo, featuring cheese boards, charcuterie, bruschetta, and carafe wine offerings, “so you can hang out just like in Italy.” Luckily, Storico Fresco already comes close to capturing the feel of a trip into the Italian countryside, right here on Peachtree Road.