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A little Italian 

Pizza, pasta and paninis at Little Azio

Little Azio takes over where Andaluz left off at the corner of 8th and Peachtree, smack-dab in the bustle of the new Metropolis condo building (good luck finding parking). Little Azio is the progeny of former Buckhead restaurant Azio (which closed years ago) and another upscale establishment of the same name downtown. It sports a quick-serve concept: Order at the marble counter and take a seat with your funky postcard table-marker a la Fellini's. With both Baraonda and Fritti serving up high-end thin-crust pizzas nearby, Little Azio offers a more affordable alternative -- minus the long waits -- plus a long list of pastas and sandwiches.

Downscaling: Squeezed between Noodle and Celebrity Cafe, Azio replaces sexy Andaluz's fiery red walls with pale yellow and antiseptic-looking white tiles. The sleek wooden bar that dominated the room is also gone; new tabletops and booths keep eating partners at arm's length.

Pizza: With a super-thin crust that's crispy and sweet, the pizzas are big enough for two and worth their weight in ingredients -- including gorgonzola, clams, shrimp and salami. Three of us split a Portabella & Sausage ($8.95) and Napolitana ($8.95), and we still had leftovers. The Napolitana was loaded to its breaking point with Italian sausage crumbles, green and red peppers, black and green olives, tomatoes and mozzarella. I preferred the other's subtler combo of portabella, sausage, fontina and mozzarella. If you have an urge for something even more daring, start with the basic Azio ($6.95) and add your own toppings ($1.25-$2).

Sub-par-nini: Although I was impressed by the bread used for all the panini sandwiches -- aromatic, crusty slices toasted and flattened -- the fillings left more to be desired. The Di Pollo ($5.95) was a mediocre blend of chicken breast, sliced tomatoes and pesto mayo lacking any real zing. The Turkanini ($6.95), with its Dijon, arugula, Swiss and turkey breast, was not much to savor either.

Pesto pasta: My first attempt at the pasta was a bust. The turkey Bolognese ($7.50) featured limp spaghetti; the sauce lacked substance; and its "spicy turkey sausage" had no taste, let alone punch. My friend tried to wade through the dish but quickly began loading it with pepper, salt, red pepper flakes, parmesan, lemon juice -- anything he could find. Finally, he gave up in disgust.

The other pastas fare much better. The penne a la Florentine ($8.95), a chunky mix of ricotta, spinach, shrimp, chicken and parmesan, needs no additional flavors. And the kitchen pulls no punches with its pesto papparadelle ($8.95), replete with shrimp, spicy sliced sausage, sun-dried tomatoes and bell peppers in a pesto sauce. The only thing that might improve this mix: gobs of soft goat cheese.

jerry.portwood@creativeloafing.com

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