Past mistakes and new ventures

Revisiting Pasta da Pulcinella, anticipating new spots in Midtown

We all have those moments we wish we could erase from experience, don't we? There are certain instances famous in my own family. There was the time my father refused to invest in Syntex, even though he'd received a tip that the company was about to put the first birth control pill on the market. "A flash in the pan," he declared the pill that would revolutionize human sexuality. I can still see my mother struggling to retract her claws as she told the story.

Most of us can simply deny our foolishness or depend on the fading memory of witnesses to make our embarrassment less bitter. But a critic, paid to state opinions, is cursed to have the record of his stupidity in written form. One of my most regrettable moments in this respect occurred about 1993 when I visited a new restaurant, Pasta da Pulcinella.

Wayne, who lived around the corner from the restaurant, fell instantly in love with it. I had tasted the owners' cuisine at a fundraiser a few weeks before the restaurant's opening and liked it, but I was sure the whole concept — small portions of designer pasta ordered at a counter in a dead location — was, um, a flash in the pan. Now, years later, when he can find nothing else to make himself feel superior, Wayne likes to remind me of how wrong I was. I might add that Riccardo Ullio, who was then chef of the restaurant, likes to remind me of this too, whenever I am even mildly critical of his restaurants Soto and Fritti. Humiliation. It is enough to make one hate everyone.

Of course, I did eventually become very fond of Pasta da Pulcinella and all but slit my wrists at a table to atone for my early unenthusiastic review. On the other hand, the very success of the restaurant and the long waits to eat there caused me to move on and away from the memory of my error. A couple of years ago, when the Midtown area of Peachtree began its building boom, Pulcinella moved to a nearby cottage off 13th Street at 1123 Peachtree Walk (404-876-1114).

I didn't visit until a few weeks ago and I am happy to report that I was quite pleased with the place. It's a much better than average cottage redo, free of the grim quaintness and cutesiness that curses the average restaurant gentrification effort. There's a glimpse of the kitchen and a real dining room decorated with countless images of the Italian clown that gives the restaurant its name. Will Bonner and I decided to eat on the porch, which is opposite a large patch of greenspace, probably destined within a few years to be another skyscraper.

The regular menu still features the pasta dishes that made the restaurant so popular. They are marvelous for their playful contrasts and the restaurant really does deserve credit for introducing Atlanta to some very adult tastes that we now take for granted.

There's my slightly bitter vegetarian favorite — buckwheat tagliatelle with sauteed rapini, roasted radicchio, browned garlic and shitake mushrooms with red pepper ($12.95). There's also a vegetarian ravioli filled with eggplant, bell peppers, walnuts, ricotta, Parmesan, basil and mint, under a tomato-basil sauce ($14.95). I love the way the basil and mint both echo and differentiate one another. A Ligurian specialty is pansotti stuffed with greens, basil, ricotta and Parmesan under a startling walnut sauce ($14.95). A fabulous Bolognese sauce over spinach includes a shot of cream ($12.95).

Will, who had never eaten at Pulcinella, ordered the restaurant's best-known dish — ravioli filled with browned Granny Smith apples, sausage and Parmesan, then sauced with browned butter infused with sage ($14.95). The dish is still killer. I've given up on most raviolis around town because their fillings almost always seem like ground mystery substances with no distinct flavor or texture. Not so at Pulcinella's.

The restaurant also features a menu of daily specials whose number exceeds the famous pastas. I was not too enthusiastic about my appetizer of mozzarella cheese and sliced tomatoes with basil olive oil and tomato coulis ($7). Tomatoes are at their peak right now and these were not very flavorful. Worse, the fresh mozzarella was way mealy.

On the other hand, a bowl of risotto with bits of Italian sausage, crushed tomatoes, fresh spinach and Gorgonzola cheese ($16) was nearly flawless. It did need a stronger dose of Gorgonzola. Other specials included angel hair pasta with lobster, sundried tomatoes, basil and saffron cream sauce ($17) and gnocchi with browned garlic and concasse tomatoes with fresh mozzarella ($11).

A fat serving of tiramisu was a good conclusion to our meal, though I prefer versions with denser use of mascarpone.

If you haven't visited this restaurant in a while, I heartily recommend you return.

Lucero goes independent
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Lucero Obregon has pulled out of Oh ... Maria! in Buckhead, which she opened with her two brothers, following the success of their ongoing Midtown restaurant, Zocalo. Lucero tells me that while Oh ... Maria! is doing fine, the menu's haute Mexican cuisine has been toned down to include some of the more popular (and less expensive) dishes from Zocalo.

The good news is that Lucero will be opening two new ventures, both near Spice in Midtown. One, which will probably open first, will sell homemade ice cream and coffee. (Watch out, Jake's!) She is also — oh happy day — opening a taqueria in the style of the early Zocalo, which in the beginning served cheap and simple fare that made it one of Midtown's great bargains.

E-mail Cliff Bostock or call his voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 with comments.??

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