Help Me, Baraonda

Art of the Meal

Oh, the poor businesspeople who get stuck in downtown Atlanta. Busy at a conference or meeting, they see only the neighborhood inside their hotel's atrium. The restaurants within a short taxi ride or (for the very brave) walking distance are often unremarkable, except for the outrageous expense.





Saddest of all are those who go to Pittypat's Porch believing they're sampling Southern culture. No wonder so many leave our town thinking all of Atlanta is a soulless grid of corporate logos.





Fortunately, an antidote is just a few blocks away: Baraonda. Surrounded by high-falutin' food palaces, Baraonda seems happy to present itself as a glorified pizza parlor. But make no mistake -- despite the Italian waiters' low-key wardrobe of black T-shirts and ponytails, and the entrees that hover around the $10 mark, Baraonda is a really good restaurant.





In fact, Baraonda has been such a big hit that its owners, Costanza Astarita and Mario Maccarrone, are planning to open another restaurant two doors down from the Fox in May. Enoteca Carbonari will feature grilled meats and fish, with an extensive wine list designed to accompany them -- and undoubtedly, its older sibling's signature vibe.





Baraonda's crowd is a funky downtown mix of nearby residents and theatergoers headed to the Fox, almost next door. (Go after 8 o'clock to avoid the curtain crowd; two-hour parking is validated with your meal across the street at the Georgian Terrace.) The interior is a pleasant jumble of potted plants and ardent talkers, commingled with the aroma of garlic and the energy of people who enjoy being out at night in a big city.





It's a short menu, but Baraonda does it all well, from the salads and antipasta to the pizza from a wood-burning oven, pastas and a few entrees like veal scaloppini and fish of the day. The wine list has lots of flinty Italian pinot grigios, plenty of chiantis, cabs and montepulcianos, as well as a good selection of potent grappas.





The mixed field green salad is a big bowl of fresh mesclun, lightly dressed with red wine balsamic vinaigrette. (It's just this kind of basic, flavorful food that makes me wonder: Why does it have to be so hard to find a good salad?) We sipped glasses of Pighin pinot grigio ($8) and dug into a bowl of cherrystone clams, doused in white wine and garlic, with a few chopped tomatoes and crusty, oil-brushed bread, perfect for dunking into the broth. Delicious!





We hated to see them go, but soon enough, our pizza arrived, its crust a thin, crisp-curled edge, with nests of shaved Parma ham, arugula, mozzarella, parmiggiano and more heavenly garlic. It's plenty for two, just as our waiter had warned. ("Would it be too much," I had asked, "if we had a side order of gnocchi too?" He recoiled visibly and, with a "Crazy Americans!" look, blurted, "Yes! It would!" Clearly, he hadn't been schooled in the usual downtown method of waiting tables.)





In fact, we were so full, we couldn't think about dessert, but elected to share a glass of that grappa, a raw-edged elixir that's a sort of refined Italian moonshine -- designed to fuel late-night adventures.





Walking back to the car, I took in the beauty of the Fox Theater, one of the city's true grand dames, and relished the company of Atlantans singing, talking and honking their horns all around me, enjoying the cosmopolitan town it's become.





Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.





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