Hello good people, and welcome to Italian Week here on Food & More as I continue my tour of 30 Atlanta restaurants.
All this week I’ll be stopping in at neighborhood Italian restaurants. The thought most likely came to me because my wife and I have been paying our respects to James Gandolfini by rewatching the entire run of “The Sopranos,” an exercise that has left me starving for pasta on a nightly basis.
But, really, is there any dining experience more perfect than Italian? When an Italian restaurant clicks, it gets the big picture, the reason we like to go out to eat. There’s a warmth to the setting, a generosity of spirit to the service, a feeling that you’re being taken care of.
When the Zagat Survey of Atlanta Restaurants came out last year, four of the top 10 rankings for food were claimed by Italian places. Among them was Valenza, a Brookhaven spot that gets big love from its neighbors.
The rustic setting seems stagy for about a nanosecond when you transition from all the new construction outside. But the Venetian plastered walls, knotty pine support beams and antique furnishings cast a quick spell, and the lighting couldn’t be better. Valenza is a big restaurant with a smaller, self contained front dining room and bar, so it takes only five or six parties to turn the mood lively.
We went early on a Monday night and were surprised to find a dressy crowd just about filling up the front room. Bottled wine is half price on Mondays, so we ordered a delicious Barbaresco for $40 and felt very Tony and Carmela as we settled into our meal. Even though our waiter was juggling several tables and moving quickly, he never lost sight of us for a minute, and the food came in a flash. I see why Valenza is popular.
Chef Matt Swickerath has a confident touch and prepares hearty, cleanly plated indulgences.
We liked our generous starters, which included a roasted beet and goat cheese salad with frisee and arugula (a familiar dish, done right with a keen application of vinegar and salt), and a bowl of super-tender braised octopus in a tomato-chile broth. A chickpea-flour cake on the bottom of the bowl soaked up all the goodness.
Entrees were a mixed bag. Kudos to the fish pictured above — a butter-enriched indulgence with a layering of flavors. The pappardelle (on top) featured a traditional three-meat ragù (pork, beef, veal) and house-made ricotta, but it lacked any depth of flavor and needed more seasoning. Gnocchi were chewy (not a good thing) and their sauce of pancetta, mushrooms and sage added a greasy slick. Sometimes I think ordering gnocchi in a restaurant only brings heartbreak.
I’m not sure I’m 100% down with the pastas here, but I totally see why the neighbors love it so. This place is worth checking out.
Hey, if you want to recommend a worthy neighborhood Italian restaurant to finish out the week on the blog, I’m all ears. Thanks.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog