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Finesse, Italian favorites mix at Misto

I'd wager a confident bet that no metropolis in the country has converted more service stations into restaurants than Atlanta. It isn't surprising, really. It's a facet of the city-gritty, industrial-redo flavor we love in our eateries. Plus, there's the old garage door bonus. When the weather warms, just hoist that baby up and -- presto! Instant outdoor dining.

Sometimes the transformations are subtle and soft, like Watershed in Decatur. Other times, like the Brake Pad in College Park, the restaurant retains some of that greasepaint funk.

Misto, near Collier Road on the West Side, falls somewhere between the funky and the finessed. Even though this space last housed a Burrito Art, its blocky exterior clearly tells the story of the building's original purpose. It resembles the quick lube across the street. Garage door opening onto an enticing little patio? Check.

Once inside, however, Misto's embracing burnt-orange glow works like Vicodin on the senses. The lights are low; the room hums with a neighborly welcome. Manager Elizabeth Baker typically greets you at the door with a quick-witted smile. Her barely concealed vivaciousness reminds you of that one college friend who could make an entire room erupt with laughter. You get the sense that, off-duty, sister girl knows how to par-tay.

Misto is Italian for "mixed," and that aptly describes the crowd. The startlingly comfortable confluence of black-clad hipsters with gravity-defying hair alongside older couples with impeccable social graces is a testament to the location. Howell Mill is the city's gateway to suburbia. That urban and suburban folks come together here without a second thought is a tribute to Misto's accessible charm. And the cross-pollination sure makes for spicy people watching.

The restaurant's name, as was no doubt intended, also reflects chef/owner Ryan Aiken's commingling of traditional Italian-American dishes with more modern, New American fillips. Aiken's strength, to my taste, lies in his interpretation of the more time-honored dishes.

Near the end of one meal, I noticed a man at the cozy bar in the back supping on nothing more than a glass of sanguine vino and a side of meatballs in tomato sauce. Just meatballs? I jotted that down in the mental notebook.

After a subsequent trip, I get it. These meatballs are archetypal -- not overly spiced, but tender and misshapen, with just an innuendo of nutmeg. They're exactly what you want sitting on top of an amiable tussle of spaghetti. Now that Star Provisions down the street has stopped serving its delicious meatball sandwich for lunch, I know where to get my fix.

Pasta clearly commands center stage. Wide pappardelle ensnares a savory, herbaceous ragu of lamb with deeply caramelized bits of vegetables and buoyant notes of rosemary and mint. Linguine with clams is treated with respect: The clear tastes of white wine and garlic befriend the brininess of the clams, and a bit of lobster stock adds a sly depth. A special of mezza luna, stuffed with a combination of pork, chicken and veal that brings to mind Sotto Sotto's tortelli di Michelangelo, needs only its simple sage-butter sauce to highlight the complex tang of the meat. Aiken's restraint is laudable.

His lasagna straddles the fence. It's neither the classic American variation leaden with ricotta, nor the silky, truer-to-Italy sort with modest amounts of meat sauce and bechamella. As appealingly melty and craggly as it looks in its small crock, the flavors don't marry in that soul satisfying way. I want more depth and creaminess when I'm downing this many carbs.

Pumpkin ravioli is a dish I'd rather eat in autumn, though it's hard to resist the skilled balance of sweet and tart that Aiken conjures with the accompanying cranberry reduction sauce. Mushroom ravioli, unfortunately, does not achieve the same wise poise: A cloying sherry reduction sauce overpowers their delicate nature.

As with the pastas, the simplest appetizers show off the kitchen in the best light. Bresaola (air-cured beef) is strategically matched with a gentle fennel-citrus salad, shards of salty pecorino, sharp capers and a minimal anointing of olive oil. It's a harmonious, rustic composition that encapsulates the beauty of Italian cuisine. The same can be said for a similarly lucid plate of pristine prosciutto scattered with arugula, fresh mozzarella, diced tomatoes and olives.

The antipasto misto is a platter of ho-hum. Nothing about the cheeses, cured meats or hillock of marinated mushrooms really stands out. This antipasto's best quality is that it's brought out quickly and staves hunger. But the restaurant's remarkably good ciabatta -- crusty and chewy in all the right ways -- does that job equally as well.

I like the idea of fried artichokes tossed in with the calamari, but the dish is undone by its overly heavy cornmeal batter that inundates the ingredients.

There are five entrees listed on the menu: I've tried two and haven't cared for either. The New York strip needs a hotter pan to really sear the sucker and seal in the juice. Jumbo lump crab cakes sound tempting topped with fried onions and roasted red pepper sauce. But, um, where are the plump morsels? We got mostly shredded crab. I'll kindly take my lumps and move on.

Desserts don't particularly wow me, either. Again, I'm not up for pumpkin gelato when the days grow long and the weather turns sultry. A mighty large lemon comes stuffed with lemon sorbet that was stiff from the deep freeze but refreshing after it thawed a bit. Other sweets, like a mixed berry tart, taste store-bought and forgettable.

What does impress me is the wine list. Though relatively brief, it manages to cover a rangy selection of Italian and American gems from lesser known Primotivos and Amarones to well-chosen Chards and Zins at every price level. There are all almost 50 choices by the glass, and the staff is gracious about bringing out samples before you commit to a bottle.

I typically tend toward mid-priced wines, but a $55 splurge on a 2002 Fonthills Grenache rewards with a jammy, mouthy wine that marries lusciously to dishes like the lasagna and lamb pappardelle.

Each of the three meals I had at the not yet year-old Misto included dishes that need some focused tinkering. But I think the guy I spotted at the bar was on to something: A bowl of lusty meatballs and a robust glass of red -- and I'd throw in a soothing bowl of pasta as well -- is exactly what you want to hone in on here. In a city wanting for homey Italian, Aiken's flair for the favorites makes Misto a valued addition to the West Side's burgeoning restaurant scene.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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