Bischero: Italian Classic

Art of the Meal

You know something's up when a restaurant inspires passionate debate. But the polarized responses to Athens' eight-month-old Bischero are as extreme as a presidential poll: "It's fantaaaastic," one friend reported, with the languid drawl of the willingly seduced. "I hate that place!" another acquaintance shot back in clipped bullets. It was the same scenario all over the Classic City, whenever Bischero arose in conversation. Which begs the philosophical question: What's that all about?





Like most heated arguments, it's really about something else. In this case, another restaurant. Hugh Acheson's award-winning Five & Ten put Athens on a national foodie awareness alert, code yellow.





Loud, staffed by sometimes clue-challenged college-kid waiters, Five & Ten produces a quirky but brilliant cuisine that's raised the bar for the entire town. Athenians are thinking about their food now -- and clearly, they care about it.





With a cavernous, loft-like setting of exposed brick in a refurbished Coca-Cola plant, the Bottleworks, Bischero is one of the most pleasant hangouts in a town that prides itself on hanging out. The prices are right: At dinner, the most expensive entree is beef tenderloin, at $22; most others hover around the low teens. And it's nothing if not authentic: Owners Stefano Volpi and Salvatori Bianco came from Italy eight years ago, met while working at Atlanta's Fritti and Sotto Sotto, and outfitted their first restaurant with Italian imports to the last detail, from the china, silverware and bar-stools to the pasta machines and custom pizza oven. The pastas are all made in-house (by the most recent Sicilian import, chef Antonio Bianco), and the wines, tomatoes (San Marzano, of course), pizza flour (double zero) and prosciutto are all straight from the Old Country.





And yet: After two visits, I liked the place, especially the pizzas and salads, but found little that got under my skin and compelled me to return. "It's just like the gnocchi you'll find in Italy," one friend says, and perhaps she's right. But it all seems so . . . correct, as opposed to delicious.





Don't get me wrong: There's much to like here, especially among the salads, such as the classic Caesar, rich with olive oil and redolent of anchovy, and the Bischero, with cotto ham, gruyere, parmigiano and balsamic dressing. The carpaccio also works nicely, the thin-sliced raw beef countered by a simple lemon-and-olive oil dressing, sprinkled with parmigiano (although I wish someone had picked out the yellow-spotted arugula leaves).





Volpi and Bianco are applying for certification from Associazione della Vera Pizza Napolitano, which would allow them to join only 10 other U.S. restaurants acknowledged for using wood-burning ovens and a narrow list of Italian ingredients for these nubbly-edged Neapolitan pizzas with a raw, uncooked tomato sauce and buffalo mozzarella or fior de latte cheese. The bracchio di ferro pie is the best dish I tried here, with pools of fresh ricotta melting over spinach, tomato and mozzarella.





Somehow, however, the pastas and main dishes don't come together as well. That potato gnocchi is as light and pillowy as you yearn for, baked with a simple, clean marinara, spinach and mozzarella, but like several other dishes, it reminded me of a romantic fling: After cooling a few degrees, the lack of personality became apparent.





The merluzzo in umido (cod braised with tomatoes, capers, anchovies and oregano, over polenta) is fine, but even with such distinctive flavors, brands the memory largely with varied levels of salt. The duck morsels in maltagliati (irregular strips, like ragged cloth) are delectably moist; the pasta and ragu worth a shrug. The eggplant, red pepper and mozzarella sandwich, on ciabatta bread, is downright dull. Among desserts, a stiff, gelatinous panna cotta is a waste for the delicious aged balsamic vinegar drizzled over it.





Perhaps Bischero will mature as it ages too -- sometimes even classics need re-interpretation.







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





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