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First look: Vita

Tony LaRocco celebrates life with his new restaurant

What happened to Bennett Street? In the '70s it was a party district. Then it became an urban-artsy destination. At the top of the hill, at the street's intersection with Peachtree, was Mick's, the longtime retro diner founded by the old Peasant Group. Somewhere along the way, retro became the new outdated and Mick's closed. Anchoring the street, down the hill, was the way-trendy Lowe Gallery, which has recently moved to Peachtree Street in Midtown.

Another business that vanished there was Fratelli di Napoli, a New York-style Italian restaurant that became an instant hit when it opened. The restaurant featured family-style dining from shared plates and the menu included many dishes new to the Atlanta palate. As I recall, there was also a Norcross location of the restaurant. I mainly remember that because it employed a server named Elvis.

Fratelli di Napoli was owned by Tony LaRocco, who sold it eventually and moved to Florida. There, he developed leukemia and was expected to die. He beat the odds and has returned to Atlanta. He's taken over the old Mick's location and opened Vita (2110 Peachtree Road, 404-367-8482). "Vita" is Italian for the "life" he's been given back.

The restaurant had only been open three weeks when I visited and I didn't get to sample a whole lot of the food, so please consider this a first look at the place.

LaRocco has preserved the basic interior architecture of Mick's but given it a colorful facelift, without resorting to any of the usual clichés of Italian restaurants. The restaurant was buzzing on a Saturday night but LaRocco has hired an excellent staff that didn't miss a beat during our visit.

I found the menu unexpectedly extensive. There are seven chicken dishes, six veal dishes, six chops, 11 seafood dishes and 11 pasta dishes that don't include seafood. There are salads and seven starters.

I encountered no surprises on the menu. Most of the dishes were familiar. Wayne and I ordered both the white bean tapenade and the olive tapenade as starters. (I preferred the bean.) After consuming a basket of bread and then scooping up the two tapenades with crostini, we'd already eaten too much by the time our entrees arrived.

I suggest you order one of the appetizers and split an order of pasta as a first course. My memory of the original restaurant is that the penne with escarole and white beans, reprised here, was especially good.

We both ordered meat for entrees. Wayne ordered the second-most-expensive dish on the menu – the 20-ounce Tuscan rib-eye ($26). It was a straightforward presentation – grilled medium-rare with a light coating of seasoned olive oil and served with garlicky mashed potatoes and some green beans. It's a "safe choice," as my father always said of steak, but this is way beyond the average.

I scanned the menu for veal saltimbocca, one of my usual test dishes, and – weirdly – only found something called "filet saltimbocca." The server told me it was beef, rather than veal, and I decided to pass. Actually, I've returned to my policy of never eating veal unless it's specified free-range. I didn't eat it for more than 10 years but relapsed a few years ago. Why beef is used here, when there are so many veal dishes, I don't know.

I ordered the chicken scarpariello. While the restaurant is no longer serving food family-style, this was certainly enough for two people. I took more than half of it home. Normally, I could eat half a roaster chicken but this was served in a bowl with hunks of sausage, vegetables and roasted potatoes. Can you say "Sunday dinner"? The dish was made more filling by the fact that the chicken was slightly breaded before being seared in olive oil and roasted with the other ingredients, including a profusion of rosemary. I liked it, although the sausage didn't seem to be of primo quality.

We also sampled two desserts. Wayne, continuing his odd ordering for the evening, chose a very un-Italian slice of Key lime pie, which the server told us was his favorite. Indeed, it was superior to a rather uninspired tiramisu served in a goblet. I like tiramisu with a good dose of bitterness; this was too puddingesque.

I also ordered espresso, a well-made doppio macchiato, at the meal's conclusion.

I will be interested to hear about readers' experiences here.

Some Updates

Rose D'Agostino and I recently lunched at Top Spice, the Thai-Malaysian restaurant in Toco Hills. I knew it had been quite a while since I ate here when I asked the server where the sushi bar was and he replied, "Long time ago."

Lunch is a bargain, even without sushi. I ordered beef rendang with coconut-mushroom soup for $8.25. Granted, I could have eaten twice the quantity I was served, but I have to say Top Spice's version may be better than my longtime favorite at Penang.

Rose ordered daging nyonya, deep-fried pork loin, served with fresh pineapple and a sweet-and-sour sauce so sweet you could be eating pineapple-upside-down cake. Unless you're into cloying flavors, avoid it.

Wayne and I visited Six Feet Under in Grant Park last Sunday night. The place was packed with a 15-minute wait. That's not something you see in many Atlanta restaurants these days.

Infatuation with their name led me to order the starter "rat toes." They're jalapeños stuffed with whole shrimp and wrapped in bacon. They weren't bad, although I had no idea what to do with the container of ranch dressing that came with them. Wayne got buffalo-style fried oysters, only slightly less weird, but also tasty enough.

I got my usual entree of blackened shrimp over grits with fried onions and fat stalks of fresh asparagus. Actually, the dish was a bit watery when it came to the table, but the grits continued to soak up the excess liquid. Wayne got his favorite – the three seafood tacos served with salsa verde.

I also ordered a mammoth serving of banana bread pudding with a whiskey sauce. It was perfect to end a monstrously fattening meal.

Tony LaRocco, Vita, Top Spice, Six Feet Under, Grant Park, Toco Hills, Midtown



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