Italian stallions 

One take on an old debate: Alfredo's or Nino's?

By Bill AddisonSinatra tunes douse your senses. The combined scent of acrid cigarette smoke and white wine sauce singes your nose but makes you salivate nonetheless. There are no windows in the wood-paneled room. Faded prints hang in cheap, gilded frames. Suspicious characters inhabit corner booths in the shadows. Ageless waiters who could do their jobs sleepwalking charm the ladies and compliment the gentlemen's choice of Chianti.

You glance down the menu perfunctorily, but you knew you were going to order clams casino and veal scaloppine before you walked in. It's the same meal you have every single time.

The cultivated clichés of Italian-American restaurants are a cultural touchstone of this country. If you grew up in the Northeast or Midwest before the foodie revolution, your family most likely had one favorite Italian restaurant. And you can probably still conjure the exact taste of that restaurant's red sauce in your mind. It's the standard by which you've judged all others since.

If you're under 25 and your parents treated you to risotto and panna cotta in newfangled Italian spots, crusty red sauce joints can seem ... creepy. Like a "Moonstruck"-themed Disney thrill gone to seed. Funny thing, though. Those old-timers have full parking lots most every night of the week.

Atlanta, of course, lacks the rich Italian heritage of many other major U.S. cities. We've got a handful of gifted chefs who craft rapturous renditions of authentic cucina d'Italia. But we sure ain't graced with a Little Italy. What passes for our only concentration of wonderfully stereotypical, Sicilian immigrant-based, mozzarella-blanketed, pasta-packed, old-school eats in this city are two restaurants that reside within a block of one another on Cheshire Bridge Road: Nino's and Alfredo's.

They've been around for decades, and so have their owners. Nino's, which touts itself as the oldest Italian restaurant in Atlanta, opened in 1968. Tony Noviello, a native of the Amalfi Coast, joined as a partner in Nino's in 1982 and became sole proprietor in the mid-'90s.

Tony Fundora, a former employee of Nino's, started Alfredo's in 1974 with a partner, Raul Morales. Perry Alvarez came on board a year later when Fundora decided to move on. Alvarez took over the business completely in 1986 and has been there ever since.

Even though it's a few years younger, Alfredo's is certainly more steeped in an imposing time warp. The building's squat, square exterior looks intimidating. Then you peek inside: It looks like a '70s rec room from the New Jersey suburbs. Are first-timers even welcome here?

Absolutely. One of the red-vested, bow-tied servers will greet you with an effusive wave of his hand and show you to your table. Another will stride up and ask for a drink order before handing you menus. A basket of toasty garlic bread arrives moments afterward. On my visits, I glance around and spy nary a Tony Soprano type. In fact, it's a bunch of ordinary-looking folks, from thirtysomethings to septuagenarians, many of whom act like regulars. Who knows what drew them here in the first place. The call of manicotti is a powerful one.

Of course, nostalgia fuels a good percentage of the business in these establishments. And that makes mediocrity a more forgivable sin at Italian-American restaurants than at most any other genre of restaurant.

As I explore Alfredo's menu, I find there's about a 50-50 chance you'll wind up with a dish that's ill-conceived or sloppily made. Baked clams casino are topped with an clunky strip of prosciutto that becomes grizzled in the oven. The wine sauce for black and white linguini Venezia is thin and a little sour, and the itsy-bitsy, freezer-burned shrimp mixed in with the clams are superfluous at best. Fried calamari is properly crispy, but the spicy fra diavolo sauce on the side tastes unexpectedly, inexplicably barnyardy.

Then again, goat cheese-filled raviolini spark a tangy repartee with fresh tomato sauce and artichokes. Eggplant parmigiana is the prototypical real deal: The fried eggplant, tender and with no trace of bitterness, gushes with a lava flow of hearty marinara and melty mozzarella. Ah. That's amore.

Meat seems to be the kitchen's forte: I'd choose a gutsy steak in port sauce or the Padrino, a frisky sampler of three veal dishes, before ordering seafood again. Scungilli fra diavolo, for example, pairs overly salty conch with too sweet tomato sauce. And one visit, when our otherwise suave and entertaining waiter, Rudy, suggested sea bass Franchese, we bit. What arrived at the table must have fallen through a black hole: We had before us Ubiquitous '70s Fish, from the time when most restaurants served every piscine specimen so overcooked and bland that different species were all but indistinguishable from one another. I ate about two bites before giving up and snarfing myself silly on eggplant parmigiana.

I shudder at the memory of that sea bass dish, though, as I ask my waiter at Nino's for the spaghetti vongole. Is the seafood questionable here as well?

Not from my experience. Digging into the Littleneck clams yields fresh, briny morsels, and the buttery white wine sauce clings to the pasta strands. A simple grouper special one night proffers a hunk of meaty, mild fish (definitely grouper!) robed in spicy tomato sauce and topped with four zaftig shrimp.

That isn't to imply that Nino's stands unimpeachably above Alfredo's. This place has its quirks, too. The scene certainly feels more approachable: Families with small children frequent Nino's during the week, though weekends give way to adult boisterousness. When the weather isn't bitter, the heated, screened-in patio is the place to be. The inside dining room? Looks like something out of a wacky pirate movie. Some undaunted soul got the brilliant idea to sponge-paint every wall surface - yes, even the wood paneling. Amazingly, an air of romance survives.

I generally find the cooking at Nino's to have more spirit than its neighbor down the block. Fettuccine con porcini shows pizzazz. Earthy mushrooms and spunky garlic are tamed by just enough heat to harmonize with one another. A little cream at the end creates a silky inkling. Bresaola, thinly sliced air-dried beef, has less complex kick than some, but the arugula salad alongside is memorably spry and refreshing.

The missteps, sadly, can also be memorable. I had two veal entrees at Nino's that made a more persuasive case to stop eating baby cow than any PETA campaign. The most impressive thing about vitello al gorgonzola e crimini is its long name. I could discern no blue cheese in the dull sauce. And veal oscar - harumph. Did they have to whip out the fake, red-veined "crabmeat"? I'd gladly pay five more bucks for a handful of real lump crab, thanks much.

I couldn't resist ordering some of the same dishes at both restaurants for a lil side-by-side comparison. Results were split:

Veal saltimbocca: Despite its failings in other variations, Nino's was the clear winner. It has a pleasantly musky element of sage, and the prosciutto's pliant texture contrasted nicely to the supple veal. Alfredo's rendition was sageless and muddy.

Vodka sauce: You know, the pinkish tomato-cream sauce with a splash of booze? Alfredo's, hands down. My only good seafood experience at Alfredo's was lobster ravioli bathed in this coquettish stuff. Nino's stirs specks of raw-tasting onion into its penne alla vodka, which obliterates the sauce's subtlety.

Fried mozzarella: I exist for molten cheese. Alfredo's isn't bad - crunchy coating, chunky sauce - but Nino's uses fresh fior di latte mozzarella and it makes a noticeable, delicate difference in texture and flavor.Cannoli: Alfredo's is classic, with a lightly sweet lump of chocolate chip-spiked ricotta piped inside a crunchy shell. Nino's adds cocoa and candied fruit to its variation, which renders it boggy and too sweet.

So, when it comes down to it, which gets my nod: Alfredo's or Nino's?

For me, it's Nino's by a nose. But only because Nino's excels in the Italian-American standards that personally sustain me. If you're a parmigiana guy or cannoli gal, check out Alfredo's. Ultimately, it doesn't matter much. Trendoid restaurants come and go. Nino's and Alfredo's will careen on. It's oddly heartening to know that fans of both places will remain loyal customers, oblivious to outside opinion. Especially from persnickety critics like me.

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