Caffe Fortunato offers three bottles of prosecco on its smart little wine list. One is
priced in the $20s, one in the $30s, one in the $40s.
“What’s the difference between them?” we ask of our waiter, who shows up at the table harried and apologetic, after making us wait for a few minutes.
“Well,” he stammers, “it’s like anything, you know. You pay for quality. The more expensive, the better.” With that expert advice, we order the medium-price one. As the waiter walks off, we can see the restaurant’s motto printed on the back of his T-shirt: “Nice. Nice.”
This waiter is nice — nicer than nice — but the unrelenting clumsiness of the service at Caffe Fortunato will do what it can to take your attention away from some interesting and ambitious Italian food. It is a restaurant worth getting to know — particularly if you live in the area — but not one that comes without caveats.
Mike Fortunato, who also owns the well-regarded Pizzeria Fortunato in Smyrna, quietly opened shop in October and soon thereafter brought in chef Justin Cox (late of Midtown’s Eno restaurant) to execute his vision. It’s a grand one. Consider: handmade pastas (from pappardelle to orecchiette), pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven (with, say, fresh ricotta and caramelized onions) and serious entrees (a whole branzino fish, a veal chop milanese pounded to the size of a Snuggie and fried to a breaded crisp).
There’s some good stuff to be had here, if a few execution gaffes in the having. But it is all served without the polish the high prices demand.
Set in the Villages of Paper Mill (one of those retail complexes designed to look like downtown Mayberry), Caffe Fortunato is, for now, half a restaurant. Come January, the wall that separates it from the construction site next door will come down to reveal additional seating with private dining and a lounge. For now, we have a loud little room decorated comfortably enough with wooden tables, vintage Italian food posters and a hearth along one wall.
Everyone in our party is happy with our old-fashioned starter of mozzarella in carrozza ($8.50). How we’ve all missed this proud wedge of fried cheese and bread — steam, crunch, strings of gooey goodness — in its bright puddle of tomato sauce. It goes well with that bottle of prosecco, we find, once we send the waiter back for glasses.
Next up: the restaurant’s show-stopping pizza — uova e tartufi ($25) — an ooh-and-aah pie holding just-set farm eggs with black truffle to be shaved table side. The pizza arrives, soon followed by the hostess/dining room manager, who’s holding a black truffle in one hand and a misbehaving truffle slicer in the other. With a surgeon’s intensity, she shaves and shaves but the truffle slivers stick to the device’s backside rather than falling in a flurry as they should. So she pulls them out with long, painted nails and flicks them onto the pizza.
“Where are the truffles from?” I venture.
“They’re flown in,” she says, looking distraught.
I want to make a joke about not expecting pigs rooting about the Big Chicken but think better of it.
This pizza tastes of sweet tomato, milky-soft mozzarella, rich egg yolk, truffle and, sigh, a burnt crust. Twenty-five dollar pizzas can’t have a burnt crust.
This restaurant could — and very well one day might — earn a spot among the area’s best Italian places. But execution mistakes get in its way. Beautiful handmade orecchiette pasta ($12.50 at lunch) shares a bowl with a greasy pool of butter sauce, cubed sausage and scarce pieces of broccoli rabe. Mild lamb ragu can’t stop fat ribbons of pappardelle noodle ($17.50) from clumping like old laundry rather than sliding about like satin bedsheets as they should. Veal scaloppine ($21) arrive in a rich cheese sauce without a speck of seasoning.
Yet the food can also taste very good. The Caesar salad ($7) is magic — a pile of shredded pale yellow heart of romaine, pea-size croutons, white anchovy, mild dressing and endless bitty crumbles of excellent Parmigiano cheese. Your palate actually goes looking for the garlic — and finds it — behind all that good cheese.
Another glorious heap: the lunchtime niçoise salad ($12) filled with shreds of the most amazing house-cured tuna. This jumble of lettuce, beans, potato and what-not doesn’t make for a pretty salad, but you won’t mind a bit once you taste it.
And that succulent whole branzino ($26.50) merits its price tag, with its simple but flavor-packed scattering of Ligurian olives, capers and cherry tomatoes. The chef has removed the dorsal fin and its pin bones, so this whole critter is easy eating.
I’m also fond of the desserts ($7 each), which range from a righteous pair of cannoli and a pleasantly boozy tiramisu served in a coffee cup. It’s a pity the cream curdled the coffee we had with it. Though the waiter graciously offered an espresso on the house, he still charged us for the initial cup of (perfectly terrible) coffee.
If the prices were a little lower, or the food more consistently as good as it could be, the service might go down easier.
But these extremely nice, well-meaning folks need better training.
Wine service seems a particular bugaboo. On one visit, I order a bottle of Badia a Coltibuono’s 2007 Chianti Classico ($43, which is not an outrageous markup for this wine). When the waiter returns with the bottle, he presents it to my guest and not me before pouring everyone at the table a taste. The glasses are hot and wet from the dishwasher, reeking of sanitizer.
“I can’t drink from this glass,” I tell the waiter, who takes a sniff, screws up his face and says, “Dude. I don’t blame you. I couldn’t either.”
Dude …CAFFE FORTUNATO 255 Village Parkway, east Cobb County, 770-951-1394 Food: Italian — Neapolitan pizzas, handmade pastas and upscale entrees Service: Nice but unusually clueless Best dishes: Pizza, whole branzino Vegetarian selections: Pizza, but custom orders welcome Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 4:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays Children: Fine but the dining room is cramped and noisy, so it wouldn’t be a good choice for young kids who get overstimulated. Parking: In lot Reservations: Call-ahead seating Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: High Patio: Yes, and it looks very nice Takeout: Yes Website: In the works, but not online yet
Note: Commenting has been disabled because I’m out of the office for an extended holiday break and unable to monitor this entry. I’ll open commenting when I return next Wednesday.
- By John Kessler, Food and More blog