Eating at La Pietra Cucina in its current state is a bit disconcerting. Located in the cavernous space that was formerly MidCity Cuisine, the functional dining area occupies only one small corner of the property -- the side room that used to be the private dining area. The only signals from the exterior that this is anything but a large, empty restaurant is a "Now Open" sidewalk sign and a piece of copy paper taped to the glass door with "La Pietra Cucina" printed on it in a large font. I've seen people enter and wander around confused for a few minutes before figuring out that they have to focus on the small room off to the side. And strangely, the staff seems to have already become bored and slightly contemptuous of the confusion. "Excuse me, are you open for lunch?" a young man asks a woman polishing glasses behind the mammoth bar in the main space.
"In the other room," she replies wearily, barely looking at him.
The 50-seat "other room" still feels totally makeshift, despite having been open since August. The plan was to expand to full capacity in October, but the projected date has now been pushed back to some time next year. Nevertheless, the reality of what's there now is worth examination, even if it does feel as though you're dining on the unfinished set of a television show about a restaurant rather than in a secure reality.
The food being served here, however, is astonishing. Chef Bruce Logue came to Atlanta after running the kitchen at Vivace at the Four Seasons in San Diego. Before that, he worked as sous chef at Babbo (Mario Batali's restaurant) in NYC. Just prior to coming here, he spent time in Italy, training with Slow Food and working in different regions. His cooking is grand enough to fill up the whole space, but honest enough to fit nicely into a tiny trattoria. He calls it "progressive Italian," whatever that means. I call it the most exciting Italian food being cooked in Atlanta – close to something you might eat in Italy but tweaked ever so slightly to reveal a completely innovative and new experience.
Thinly sliced piles of Proscuitto de Parma rise cloud-like from triangles of fresh baked flatbread. It's hard to resist gobbling them down, but pause to pair them with the fluffy, decadent house-made ricotta and a preserves-like pineapple mostarda, which is sweet and piquant and studded with mustard seeds for a thrilling and unexpected counterpoint.
A roasted vegetable salad pairs eggplant with "creamy" mozzarella and is topped with bitter fresh greens and dollops of smoky and sweet sauce – such complexity and variety of flavors are rarely so harmonious.
The menu is surprisingly short, often with three appetizers, four or five pasta dishes and three entrees. But there are usually a number of specials, recited in detail by the hyper-educated servers (who will know what state the pork is from and what it ate the day it was butchered – I kid you not). A recent special has been a saffron and seafood stew, punctuated by hunks of sopping, crusty bread. Here, the purity of flavor, the simplicity of the dish is what surprises.
Pasta, such as the perfectly eggy tagliatelle with fall mushrooms and thyme butter, can revel in this simplicity, or, in dishes such as black spaghetti with shrimp and Calabrese sausage, can push boundaries in unexpected ways. The spaghetti, blackened with squid ink, comes alive with coriander and cumin, creating a dish that tastes almost Indian. Logue says the spice is entirely the work of the sausage, which he makes into a ragu before combining it with the shrimp, pasta and breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs lend a crunch to the texture, playing off the al dente pasta and pop of the shrimp. The dish is disarming and confusing in all the right ways.
And then, a wild boar ragu, redolent of red wine, comforts with home-style grace on a cold afternoon. Zeppoli – Italian fried doughnuts – come piping hot and crunchy with sugar, begging to be dipped into a rich chocolate espresso sauce that's delightfully more bitter than sweet.
Fig and duck confit risotto is soupier than you might be used to, and both more subtle and focused than is common.
There were times that I felt many of these dishes could use a touch more salt, but that's a personal preference and salt is provided on the table. There were times that I felt the servers were of the so-professional-they're-jaded variety – I sensed a certain aloofness and weariness. It all adds up to a fascinating but slightly unsettling experience.
Mostly I hope for Logue's food to have a grander setting, a better wine list (the current one is too short for any kind of exploration), and a less cobbled-together feel, although I may be alone in that last wish. My colleague Cliff Bostock says he loves La Pietra Cucina specifically because of its improvised feel – he called it "the anti-restaurant." But for me, it's too disquieting (curtains blocking out the view of the vast empty space would help). Both Logue and general manager Robin Tubbs are vague about when the main space will open and how the restaurant will transition in the meantime. But if meticulously prepared, lovingly executed Italian food is of interest to you, it's worth braving the uncertainty of that transition to eat at La Pietra Cucina now.
Hope everyone had a great weekend and has a even greater week.
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