Reality test 

Nostalgia, surrealism and marinara

"This place in Florida had real Italian waiters," the man in the booth behind us was saying.

"Did they speak English?" his companion asked.

"Oh yes, but with a very heavy accent, so you knew the food was going to be authentic." He paused. "But this restaurant is good, too. I think it was started by the guy who invented Fettucine Alfredo."

I snorted as I bit into a slice of spongy bread that tasted dipped in butter and garlic powder. I was dining at Alfredo's (1989 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-876-1380). Open well over 20 years, this squat restaurant on Midtown's seediest street, is a place I go when I need a mix of nostalgia and surrealism, when authenticity is too much to bear.

Alfredo's pre-dates the arrival of regional Italian cooking in our city. Its cuisine is mainly in that vein of New York-style Southern Italian cooking that anyone over 30 grew up thinking was typical of the entire peninsula's food. So, you won't find those glittering little white beans that you find at Antica Posta or the fried sardines you can get at Fritti or the cauliflower bisque at Terra di Siena.

What you get is weirdness and a square deal. The restaurant, a dowdy rectangle sitting in a parking lot, looks like it belongs in Myrtle Beach. But even the crowded lot tells you something right away. There is a mix of clunkers and near-limos. Ignore the dude urinating on a wall nearby. He's lost his way, stumbling out of a nearby lingerie studio, no doubt.

Open the door, go through the small ante-room, and find yourself in a bar illuminated by a giant fish tank of creatures no more exotic than the clientele. There are women with big hair and men in gold chains, gay people, lovey-dovey young couples and, my god, an old man in a leisure suit. Basically, it's the Colonnade crowd gussied up. If it's not terribly crowded you might immediately be greeted by a man in a tuxedo, rubbing his hands together and smiling broadly at you. Yes, you have become an extra in a Fellini film. You hear an opera chorus playing. You wonder if you've died and Deano and the Chairman of the Board are going to be your servers.

The service, beginning with the maitre d', is good if startling. Our server David is herewith declared Waitron of the Week. With a New York accent and manner, he is all bluster and pure heart. I watched him help one elderly man button his coat and then turn around and pour the honey of endless patience over an old lady who had spent the day at the hospital and come to the restaurant with her daughter to relax. He did not miss a beat waiting on us, either, pacing our meal and making recommendations.

I'm afraid the food remains as retro as the environment (and this is doubtless part of its appeal to the longtime customers). I used to go to Alfredo's for one dish: the scungilli fra diavolo. It's still on the menu but wasn't available, as it wasn't when I visited a year ago. This dish, conch in a spicy tomato sauce, is harder than ever to find in our city.

We ordered the hot and the cold mixed antipasti. I'm afraid Fritti really has spoiled us insofar as hot antipasti are concerned. While two jumbo shrimp on the plate ($5.95) were nicely broiled and butterflied, we disliked nearly everything else, including the overcooked eggplant parmesan, a mysteriously gooped mollusk and a bizarre ball of mystery meat attached to a tiny mushroom cap. The cold plate ($6.50) was very thin cold cuts, none of them flavorful, with some absurdly paper-like slices of tasteless cheese, over greens. Considering the availability of good Italian meats and cheeses in our city, I don't get it.

Entrees were a considerable improvement. I ordered veal nicely browned and sauced in Barolo wine, served with artichokes and red peppers ($14.95). Wayne ordered the day's fish, sea bass, broiled exactly right and served swimming in butter and lemon sauce, with some capers ($19.95). We liked the fish a lot, though the huge amount of butter was a retro shock.

Dessert was a cakey tiramisu, overpriced at $5.95. Skip it. It needs more mascarpone, more coffee, more depth.

But, honestly, don't skip Alfredo's. It is a trip. You can, by the way, eat on the cheap here. There are lots of low-priced pasta dishes.

Recommended
There are now more than 100 Italian restaurants in Atlanta. Here are a few, in addition to those mentioned above, for more serious dining:

Sotto Sotto: This cafe and its next-door sister Fritti continue to experiment and delight. I still dote on the pheasant with mostarda but pasta dishes are among the city's most interesting.

La Grotta: This restaurant in a condo building on Peachtree probably remains the city's best Northern Italian restaurant, despite recent competition. My favorite dish last time I visited, which has been a while, was quail with sausage, re-done not too long ago by the trendy Johnson Studio.

Pastificio Cameli: It's the best restaurant by far in East Atlanta. I've enjoyed everything I've eaten here, from pasta with radicchio to chicken fricassee.

Pasta Da Pulcinella: Really good pasta with really big attitude. It's in Midtown, so the customers know how to throw attitude back at the staff.

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