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Promising progeny 

Fritti upholds Sotto tradition of simply elegant, essentially Italian dining in Inman Park

At dusk, with the autumn sun setting over our own Emerald City, there may be no more agreeable outdoor dining spot than the patio of Fritti, in Inman Park. The baby sister and next-door neighbor to Sotto Sotto, Atlanta's bellissima darling, and presided over by owner Riccardo Ullio and manager Rob Jackson, Fritti is worth a visit even if you don't eat a bite.

The streetside patio, screened from traffic by oversize, roughly glazed water jars and pots of tall shrubs, is currently attracting the fast-lane, first-look crowd. Comfy, metal-mesh chairs, retro-industrial light fixtures, widely spaced tables and unusual chinaware are honey to the Gianni Versace clones, the PR operatives and their steely-eyed clients, the impossibly beautiful couples cooing over salads. Milan and Genoa can feel something like this.

Come winter, Jackson says, the covered patio will be enclosed and heated with gas braziers. There's also room for a hungry crowd inside the rehabbed, soft industrial building. Black-brown chairs and kraft paper-topped tables surround a very visible pair of brick ovens used for baking pizzas and roasting meat. A small fry kitchen -- "fritto" means fried in Italian -- is tucked out of sight behind the 1,200-degree, wood-burning ovens and a long service counter. A cocktail bar with its own terrace operates to the right of the restaurant's so-far unmarked entrance.

In the dining room itself, black napkins arranged in a diamond pattern on the tan tabletops, with knives and forks set horizontally, create a welcoming, up-to-date pattern that at once amuses and soothes the eye. An unfinished balcony above the ovens will be fitted out as business builds.

If Ullio's record with Sotto Sotto and Pasta da Pulcinella (which he co-founded) is any measure, build it he presumably will. Fritti's menu, though moderately lengthy, is simple, straightforward and essentially Italian. Salads, fried appetizers, pizzas and a handful of desserts make up the card. Roast meats are being tried out as specials and will be added to the menu during cooler weather.

Appetizers and salads, all essentially shareable, vary considerably in size and value. Mashed potato and Gorgonzola cheese croquettes with marinara sauce, perhaps the tastiest starter, is comparatively pricey -- $6 for three smallish batons. Mixed green salad with baby greens, sliced onion and radish, hunks of tomato and balsamic vinaigrette, and Caesar salad topped with plenty of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, are both large and delicious enough to justify their $5 price tags. So is the mixed seafood fry -- four jumbo shrimp, two diver scallops, two fresh sardines and a heap of calamari and baby octopus at $14. The flavorful but somewhat greasy squid and the assertively flavored sardines can be had by the plate for $7 and $8 respectively.

A large pan of roast mussels with lemon, oil and parsley was a botch -- cooked yet raw-tasting ($7). Fans of mullet sushi may want to try this one. We sent ours back. Better choices may lie among the small plates I have yet to try: fried mushrooms, roast clams and tomato and bread salad.

Despite the restaurant's name, baked pizzas with thin, delicate crusts are the star attraction. Notwithstanding advice by otherwise helpful and upbeat servers, the one size offered does not fit all. Two people with moderate appetites can equably share one pizza, assuming the addition of a starter or two. Big guys with healthy hormones will put a pizza or calzone away without breaking a sweat. We brought parts of two pies home and both reheated well.

Most of the pizzas begin with a base of San Marzano tomatoes and fior de latte mozzarella. With one exception (the tomato, garlic and oregano starter model at $10), prices run $13-$15 depending upon toppings. We looked for novelty -- not always a wise course when a restaurant's cuisine is a work in progress. Frankly, that's the reason this report doesn't begin with a rave about the pizzas.

An asparagus and Parmigiano-Reggiano pizza is probably a very good idea. But Fritti's spears tasted distressingly like -- but were clearly not -- canned. I had a somewhat similar reaction to the fresh tomato, red onion and baby arugula version: Fine idea -- if only the sliced tomatoes were less cottony and somewhat more cooked. The relatively conventional four-cheese (mozzarella, Fontina, Emmenthal and pecorino) was much more successful.

That said, I'm looking forward to further experimentation. Pizzas topped with goat cheese, fresh tuna, bresaola (cured beef) and assorted seafood all sound mighty appealing. So do platters of roast pork and whole fish with fresh herbs.

Though several Italian-accented desserts are offered, homemade hazelnut gelati strikes me as the right and authentic place to stop.

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