Old-World charmer 

La Grotta's polished elegance recalls a bygone era

A CL colleague is peering over my shoulder as I type, wondering which restaurant I'm reviewing this week. "Oh!" he replies, when I tell him La Grotta in Buckhead. "I went there for my junior prom."

This does not surprise me. I showed up for my first visit to the restaurant in my usual business-casual garb and felt conspicuously underdressed. I was one of a handful of men not wearing a jacket. Many of the ladies had donned their little black cocktail dresses and were sporting tightly coiffed 'dos. A couple blocks down from Buckhead's teeming college-aged bar scene, I had stumbled into the Lost Land of the Grown-Ups.

Every aspect of La Grotta, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, feels like an elegant time warp (there's also a newer outpost near Perimeter that I did not visit). The location -- in the basement of a staid, dozy apartment building on a tree-laden stretch of Peachtree -- is Atlanta's '70s predecessor to the proliferating restaurants currently hidden in industrial compounds around the city.

Getting to the dining room is a little trippy. You pull up to the building, valet your car, enter the building's beige lobby (where you pass a sterile sitting room and resident mailboxes) and take an elevator to the basement. You step out into a small lobby. The walls are covered with the shimmery, eggplant-colored material out of which prom dresses are made. I couldn't resist touching it. Swing open a door, note the celebrity photos on the wall (wow, Omar Sharif is ancient!) and mosey down a short but cavernous hallway that leads to the large, open room. There's a wall of windows on the far side of the space and a quiet, bucolic patio beyond that.

Once seated, you are swarmed by kindly, grandfatherly gentlemen. Their service style is so attentive that you want to fold your hands in your lap and sit up straight. Which is not to say they're stuffy. They make light banter and are quick with dead-on wine suggestions.

The Italian cuisine, under the seasoned eye of chef Antonio Abizanda, is the kind served by restaurants before it became an American obsession to define the particular region of Italy from which the dishes hailed. Here, you get a little Northern Italian, you get a little Southern Italian and you get some Middle Italian as well.

Ordering can be a bit of an obstacle course. Veer yourself in the right directions, and you'll have a succession of deftly concocted tastes that ring with harmony and clarity. Take the Insalata di Carciofi. Fresh baby artichokes are shredded, tossed with a bit of olive oil and gussied up with a couple sheets of Parmesan and arugula leaves. There's none of the typical acidic bite, just the subtle tang of well-matched flavors.

The kitchen knows what ingredients to pair with prosciutto to complement its gently salty nature. A menu staple with grilled pears and mascarpone cheese balances the ham with a smoky, smooth sweetness. A special antipasto of prosciutto with plump, ripe figs dotted with Gorgonzola has the earthy, funky sophistication that defines the appeal of simple Italian food.

I've had my share of clunkers from this menu, though. Seared calamari was overcooked and awfully chewy the night I tried it. Wedges of grilled Portobello mushrooms smeared with goat cheese were an uninspired, bland combination. Veal scaloppine in marsala sauce erred on the dull side as well. And I had a whopping disappointment with questionably fresh Dover sole served in a thin lobster sauce with tiny scallops that possessed the texture of gummy bears. The $30 price tag did not put me in a forgiving frame of mind.

Fortunately, it's hard to miss with the pastas (which, by the way, can be ordered in half-portions for appetizers as well). Delicate gnocchi in a tomato-cream sauce and sprinkled with porcini mushrooms was heavenly. Bread to mop the sauce is mandatory. Tortelloni della Casa, stuffed with ground mixture of prosciutto, braised onions and mascarpone, gets a bonus toss in a hot pan with butter to crisp their exteriors before they are swathed in a fresh oregano tomato sauce. Even penne with Italian sausage, wild mushrooms and roasted red peppers in Gorgonzola cream sauce -- a tired-sounding dish that seems like something one could whip up at home -- is a balanced pleasure in the kitchen's knowing hands.

Our suave servers do not clear plates until everyone has finished with their last bite. Then, whoosh! Away they go and here come dessert menus. The restaurant has retired its infamously old-school dessert cart, but the offerings are still the good ol' Italian standbys. Tiramisu? You know it. And not a bad rendition at that. But I'll take their silky raspberry tart with a dense buttery crust and a good cup of strong coffee.

I'm always surprised to see the dining room still hopping at 9 p.m., even on Tuesdays. This restaurant's regulars are legion, and it's easy to see why. The staff, the crowd and the kitchen's best dishes all contribute to a sense that meals here are special events. It'd be an ideal place to bring visiting parents, perhaps even propose. And yeah, if I'd grown up in Atlanta, this definitely would have been my choice to woo my prom date before heading off to the big dance.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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