Trouble With Toast

Pizza wars

April 30, 2009

Here in Atlanta, we take our food pretty seriously.  We line up at 4:30 PM to get a taste of Chef Scott Peacock’s world-famous fried chicken.  We beam with pride when our mighty burgers (from Ann’s Snack Bar or the Vortex) are featured in the national media.  We have very strong personal feelings about where to get the best “meat and three.”  And now, we must choose sides in the war of the Neopolitan pizza.

The fiery battle between Fritti (in Inman Park) and Varasano’s (newly opened in Buckhead) was stoked by Mr. Varasano himself, who not only claimed to be “the creator of the internet’s #1 pizza recipe,” but also ruffled some feathers when he referred to Fritti’s pizza as “tasteless cardboard.”  Now that he has opened up shop in town, my mission was clear: taste both pizzas, and report back with findings.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

First, Fritti.  We visited on a Friday night while one of my DC girlfriends was in town, and we showed up around 8 PM.  There was a short wait for a table, so we enjoyed a couple of rounds in the bar area.  There were plenty of beers and wines to choose from, which always makes me happy.  We were seated outside, which allowed us to enjoy the beautiful evening and the sights and sounds of Highland Avenue.  So far, so good!  The menu is quite extensive, so after some debate, we ordered the arancini (risotto croquettes, these with sausage) and the bresaola (thin-sliced beef with arugula and parm) as appetizers.  The arancini were perfectly fried and pratically grease-less, but they were a bit bland overall.  Perhaps some more salt or some kickier fillings would be good.  The bresaola was nice and balanced, and a very light and tasty start to the meal.

On to the pizza!  I ordered the calamari fritti pizza, which contained (duh) fried calamari, fresh tomatoes, and mozzarella.  My friend had a pizza with lamb, mint, red onion, and mozzarella, and fiance ordered the salame piccante (with spicy salami and black olives).  I really loved my pie–the toppings were flavorful and high-quality, the sauce had a nice sweetness, and the crust had the right amount of chewiness and crunch.  There was some char present, but it didn’t overpower all of the other flavors.  The pizza did get a bit soggy towards the middle, but that upset my dining companions far more than it did me (after all, I was born in NY, so properly folding a slice is in my DNA).  Service was prompt and very friendly, and I definitely liked the scene.

A week later, we headed to Varasano’s to see if it was worth the hype.  This time it was just Jason and me, and we again chose to sit out on the patio.  Sadly, Buckhead just isn’t as interesting to look at–but that’s not the restaurant’s fault.  What IS the restaurant’s fault is that the options–in terms of both beverages and food–are a bit limited.  The only appetizers available were three different kinds of salads and a cured meat platter.  None of those really spoke to me, so we passed on the first course altogether.  In terms of drinks, there was a small selection of wine and a fairly decent bottled beer roster, but other than a glass of prosecco (which always hits the spot), I really didn’t get excited about anything on the list.

The options for pizzas were somewhat limited as well, so I ordered a classic: the margherita pizza (with an upgrade to buffalo mozzarella).  My fiance went for the salumi (cured meat, mozzarella, and spiced olives).  The toppings were delicious, and the crust actually stayed crispy throughout the pie.  BUT, unfortunately, the char that accompanied that crisp crust was a very overpowering flavor.  I actually lost a lot of the taste of the mozzarella due to the bitter bite of the char.  Even though the flavors of Jason’s cured meats were more robust and could stand up to the char, he agreed that it was a little too much for his liking as well.  Service was very good–the restaurant almost seemed overstaffed, as many different people came to check in on us at various times throughout our brief meal (which is better than the alternative, don’t get me wrong).  I really wanted to try the Italian doughnuts, but I was too full to justify them.

Since service and pricing were so similar, the pizza stands as the sole point of comparison (which is probably how it should be).  So where did I come out in the great ‘za debate?

I’m definitely in the Fritti camp.

Certainly, Varasano’s pizza was tasty.  And perhaps it truly was a perfect example of real Neopolitan pizza (I wouldn’t know).  But, between the heaviness of the char and the surprisingly small number of choices, I left Varasano’s with much less of a desire to return than I did when I left Fritti.

So, chalk one up for Fritti–I’ll definitely be back for more.


Date Night at Wisteria

October 6, 2008

A lot of people complain about Open Table, claiming that they’ve been treated poorly (as compared to call-in reservations), that their reservations have been cancelled without notice, and that points were not awarded when they should have been.  In my personal experience, Open Table is an invaluable tool, and a rewarding one–in fact, a $20 Open Table reward certificate is what brought us to Wisteria on Friday night.  And thank goodness!  We are so happy to have discovered such a gem within walking distance of our apartment.

Located on North Higland Avenue in the Inman Park neighborhood, Wisteria has a very warm and inviting decor–there’s some great exposed brick, and lots of cool artwork on the wall.  The space is big enough to feel hip and happening, but it’s not so big that it becomes deafeningly loud at full capacity.  There is a small bar where (I believe) you can order from the full menu.  My fiance ordered a gimlet at the bar, and he said it was very well-made, but it harkened us back to DC with its $12 pricetag.

We asked our lovely server to bring us a dry white wine in the $30-$40 range, and she did just that–I just wish I could remember what it was!  In any case, it played very well with the food and was reasonably priced.

For appetizers, I couldn’t resist the Kumamoto oysters flown in from the Pacific coast, and they were as briny and delicious as I expected.  They were served with some sort of cocktail/mignonette hybrid, but to be honest, I didn’t use a drop of it because the oysters were so tasty.  Fiance ordered the seared sea scallops over braised pork belly, radicchio, and a bourbon-molasses reduction.  Yum!  The scallops were just underdone, which is exactly how we like them, and the pork belly gave the dish some salty, slightly crispy contrast.

For entrees, fiance went with the pan-seared skate wing, which was served with lemon brown butter, stone-ground grits, and asparagus.  The fish was delicious and perfectly cooked, and the accompaniments suited the dish very well (though the asparagus were a little scrawny, and I was surprised to see them on the plate out of season).  I opted for the roasted half duck–and I probably shouldn’t have.  Don’t get me wrong, the flavors were spot-on (it was glazed with an orange ginger sauce and served with a Napa cabbage and julienne pepper saute), and it was prepared exactly as it was described.  However, I really prefer my duck cooked rare, and roasting forced the bird to be more like medium.  The good news was, the skin was perfectly crispy, and it was a delicious treat.

Desserts are more like tastes, and the idea is to mix and match and try a number of them.  We opted for three for $10, and we chose the carrot cake (which I don’t like, but which Jason thought was very good), the pecan pie (a good, solid rendition), and the balsamic strawberry and mascarpone tart (stellar–I could have eaten three more).  I like the concept of dessert “tapas,” so you can sample a bunch without feeling totally bloated.

Service was excellent–friendly and attentive, but not annoying and overbearing.  Our waitress really knew the menu, and she made excellent suggestions.  With a bottle of wine, two apps, two entrees, three dessert “tastes,” a glass of port, tax, our Open Table certificate, and tip (on the pre-discounted amount, of course), we walked out for less than $150.  For what we received, we both felt that Wisteria was a good value–and certainly a wonderful neighborhood destination.