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STG Trattoria restaurant review, Buckhead

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This whole STK-vs.-STG thing gets confusing, no? Two restaurant names separated only by a consonant.

STK renders the word “steak” into a kind of trendy airport code. Boisterous and bumping, this restaurant serves as a Midtown layover for red meat, ’80s music and a clubby atmosphere designed to attract swarms of young women and visiting celebrities.

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

STG Trattoria in Buckhead couldn’t be more different. Owner Brian Lewis took the initials of his three young sons — Sebastian, Tristan and Gabriel — to name this labor of love tucked into the corner of a new Buckhead retail strip. Guests sit at a fanciful U-shaped counter facing an open kitchen and drink wines from a 100 percent Italian list. Neapolitan pizzas from a wood-burning oven (our city’s obsession) headline the tightly curated menu of small plates and pastas.

As a restaurateur, Lewis has a keen sense of style. Like his Westside sleeper Bocado, STG strives for a tricky vibe — sharp but also comfortable, manifestly fashionable but decidedly dressed down. You might say his restaurants are like the designer jeans of the Atlanta dining scene.

But as with that fine 7 For All Mankind denim, these restaurants need time to stretch and loosen up. Bocado felt awkward until chef Todd Ginsburg learned how to establish his voice within the cool industrial framework of that dining room. After three visits to STG, I get the same impression. Talented chef Josh Hopkins (late of Abattoir) cooks with skill and refinement if not much oomph. I suspect his voice will better emerge as this restaurant figures itself out.

Counter seating at STG -- note the ledges (photos by Becky Stein)

Counter seating at STG -- note the ledges (photos by Becky Stein)

Lewis worked closely with local design firm ai3 on the edgy design. You enter through the wine cellar — a vaulted corridor of wooden racks that feels like a bottle-lined birth canal. Once inside, the entranceway opens to a high-ceilinged space with a full-on view of the kitchen, some of it behind glass walls. Here, a chef pulls pizzas from the two hand-built Acunto ovens. There, another scoops ice cream. Hopkins stands at the kitchen pass, like an orchestra conductor.

You’ll find plenty of seating at wide, two-sided counters with raised steel ledges running through the center. I suppose these ledges come in handy when plates pile up, but they bisect your view of the people sitting across from you. I’m not sure I like dining like this but, hey, I know where to come if I ever organize a duplicate bridge tournament. Given a choice of seating, I might make a beeline for the few standard tables by the front window.

Spring pea bruschette

Spring pea bruschette

Wherever you sit, don’t miss one of the signature aperitif sodas, icy concoctions made with various combinations of potable bitters, fruit and soda. I’ve loved them all, particularly one with Aperol and orange, and another with Cynar and lime (both $6). More than anything, I love the way STG revives the tradition of the aperitif — a refreshing, quenching, low-alcohol pre-dinner drink that primes your appetite, takes the edge off and doesn’t set you too far off into your buzz to enjoy some wine. Bravo.

If you want a glass of wine, things get more complicated. You must consult an iPad. This is great if you’re considering dropping some money on a bottle of Barolo and intend to research in detail options on the list. It’s less great if you have to scroll through nested menus in search of a little glass of something or a bottle of simple, inexpensive white, such as the Ceretto Arneis Blangè ($31, an excellent price for this wine).

Our iPad actually crashed, and by the time we could flag down a waiter, get it reset and order our wine, the food was mostly gone. Not to go all Luddite, but the option of a written list for casual wine drinkers might be nice.

The food menu blessedly comes at you old school, on a sheet of paper listing fewer than a dozen small plates, a couple-three pastas and a handful of pizzas. If two of you are dining, plan to exult in the holy trinity of wine, salad and pizza.

Hopkins makes stellar work of roasted beets with fennel, escarole and arugula over a smear of soft house-made ricotta ($8) — a sweet and bitter melody with a coda of creamy comfort. He tosses fava beans with pecorino cheese and mint ($7) for the Italian classic, but then gives it an inspired Southern spin with fresh lady peas. Even a local salad of firm spring lettuces and shaved radishes ($8) tastes unusually vibrant, thanks to its robust, earthy herb vinaigrette.

Pomodorini pizza with house mozzarella and cherry tomatoes

Pomodorini pizza with house mozzarella and cherry tomatoes

Head pizza chef Nicola Russo makes his dough with the finely milled Italian 00 flour, salts it well and gives it a long fermentation for a chewy, springy crust with a soft tang. I like it a lot. I also found it varied on two visits, coming out slightly soft and over-charred on a humid day. But that’s pizza. Try the one with bursty cherry tomatoes, oregano, garlic and gorgeously milky house-made mozzarella ($21). A weirder one with musky, puddly taleggio cheese comes festooned with sharp anchovy, capers, olives and arugula ($19). It divided our table, but I enjoyed it.

If a larger group of you are dining, you will likely go for a variety of small plates with a pizza thrown in there for good measure. It’s a fun meal, but a confusing one. Your waiter will offer to “course it out” and reset the table in two or three waves. But then the kitchen will bring the dishes as they come up, leaving you at various times in the meal with food but no silverware or plates.

The menu itself, short as it is, seems disjointed. Firm pork meatballs ($9) in a concentrated tomato sugo are best-of-show-at-the-tapas-bar fantastic. (You want bread to mop up the sauce.) South Carolina grouper propped over rapini in a thin preserved lemon nage ($13), while nice, seems like a course from a chef’s tasting menu at a fancy restaurant.

Braised octopus with fingerling potatoes ($12) in a smoked paprika sauce looks just right, but twice the octopus is seriously chewy. Spring pea bruschette ($8), as big as open-faced sandwiches, taste wonderful. But the bread’s rock-solid crunch and the tensile strength of prosciutto folded over the surface conspire to leave you with a lapful of shattered toast and a piece of ham hanging from your mouth.

The kitchen makes its own pasta, but the two I try suggest they should keep working at it. Despite a gloriously porky ham bolognese sauce, the baked strozzapreti ($16) are not the involuted furls of hand-rolled pasta I expect but gummy fingers of solid dough. Likewise, bucatini ($17) don’t have the hollow centers typical of these thick strands, and they’re al dente to the point of requiring a dentist. Further, the decision to pair bucatini with shrimp in a delicate oil sauce seems odd. There’s a reason Italians pair this heavy-duty pasta with rustic, hearty all’amatriciana sauce.

Desserts are limited to a panna cotta, a dense and delicious chocolate budino ($8) with olive oil and sea salt, and a single flavor of gelato. This is the rare Italian restaurant that doesn’t serve espresso, instead offering tepid coffee in a super-stylish insulated glass mug.

STG Trattoria has got all the pieces in place — the urban edge, the sharp looks, the talented chef and the sincere spirit of hospitality. It’s now up to us to break it in.

STG TRATTORIA
102 West Paces Ferry Road, Buckhead; 404-844-2879
2stars5Food: Pizza, pasta, small plates
Service: Friendly, but out of pace with the kitchen and a little too formal
Best dishes: Roasted beet salad, fava bean salad, pizzas, aperitif soda drinks
Vegetarian selections: Salads and pizzas
Credit cards: Visa, American Express, Master Card
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-3 p.m. Saturdays; dinner, 5:30 p.m.-closing Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5:30-9 p.m. Sundays
Children: Would be fine during early hours, but this is a decidedly grown-up restaurant
Parking: Self-parking in attached lot
Reservations: Yes, but restaurant reserves ample seating for walk-in customers
Wheelchair access: Full
Smoking: No
Noise level: Very high but you can talk without screaming
Patio: Yes
Takeout: Yes
ratings_key_febUSE

28 comments Add your comment

VickiF

June 7th, 2012
7:48 am

My son and I ate there for lunch, and the very nice pizza chef explained the different herbs on our pizzas and gave us a sprig of fresh oregano to smell. We also had trouble with the Ipad wine list which froze up. I’m sorry we missed noticing the apertifs, I like those and will try them…

Not Alton Brown

June 7th, 2012
9:01 am

Best dish: “Beets and Fava Bean Salads” why bother..I am just saying

Mr. H

June 7th, 2012
10:21 am

Name dropping 7 denim and overwhelmed by an iPad; way to connect with the blue-hair base. Was the font size on the menu large enough?

Amy

June 7th, 2012
10:53 am

I ordered pizza with prishiuto and spinich and it was just what it said it would be. This one time at Fritis I ordered a pizza with arugala on it and I guess it was my fault because I tought arugala was cheese but it had some salad stuff on it. But this place is off the chain. Except for the beets but I don’t like them anyway. Sorry it’s not there fault I don’t like them. But go here it is good.

Ned Ludd

June 7th, 2012
11:57 am

Went early and watched a little confusion arise as it got crowded but should not be an issue once the staff gets the feel of things. Had an aperitif with cardamaro(?) very interesting and kudos to the server for suggesting it. We also had some issues with the Idiot pad wine list (Thats gotta go) but were pleasantly surprised when a server across the room volunteered to assist. Great meal, great atmosphere….many things on the menu I want to try..Will be back.
Also, although it is obviously not a beer joint, several hard to find premium marks were offered.

Judge Smails

June 7th, 2012
12:24 pm

Went there for lunch…Dominoes has better pizza. The crust was flavorful, but burned beyond recognition.

Edward

June 7th, 2012
2:11 pm

OK, who is punking the comments, now? o_O

Chi-Town

June 7th, 2012
5:16 pm

CRUMPY approved?

That is the big question.

Will not eat there until his approval.

art

June 7th, 2012
6:35 pm

JK, great review! “Not to go all Luddite”… was the best line of the day. @Mr. H, even Apple products, as much as I am a fan, sometimes crash and are buggy… iTunes on a PC is a nightmare waiting to happen…. Just sayin’ ;-) @Amy, you got ta be puttin’ on wit dat spellin’ thang… prishiuto and spinich? Pho reel? LMAO!

femmefatale

June 7th, 2012
9:29 pm

iPad wine lists. How deliciously (and unnecessarily) pretentious. I love living a stone’s throw from Buckhead in Dunwoody. ;) I’ll probably wait a while before sampling. When it comes to pizza, it’s not about fancy labeling or ingredients. Just make it really good by not skimping on the toppings and don’t burn it.

femmefatale

June 7th, 2012
9:34 pm

@’art’ – a little bit of exaggeration there about Amy, let’s keep it civil beautiful. ;)

otis

June 7th, 2012
9:55 pm

i have been to STG probably a dozen times now. every restaurant has a break in time but I have to say that STG is already up and running. the pizza is always on and you can take this recommendation also from my italian friends who have dined with me. i found all of the small plates a very interesting addition to the menu and an interesting start to the meal. the selection of cocktails are an equally interesting blend of flavors which i am sure were created with the help of david from bocado. i have to say that i never personally put much faith in these restaurant reviews and feel you should go out and experience the places yourself. i am a huge fan of supporting small businesses in atlanta. the owners of these places put a lot of time, energy and love into opening something that they are passionate about. so i say go out and try it for yourself. i am hooked. just a note. you don’t have to use the ipad as the waiters are well versed in helping select a wine.

Sambo Grease

June 7th, 2012
10:09 pm

This place is awesome!!!
I’m glad to have a consistent well priced place to dine and entertain my out of town guests in Buckhead – finally!
The food is fit for foodies but not intimidating for my in laws.
ATTN: JK – Very cheap shot to bring up a chain (STK) when reviewing a family operation like STG. Did they pay you for that plug?

Brian

June 8th, 2012
7:20 am

My comment got removed?? For merely criticizing the arrogance of Brian Lewis and how i would not step foot in his restaurants? That’s it for me and the AJC…. I wasn’t aware the paper had Chinese censorship standards. Sad, Kessler, sad.

Brian

June 8th, 2012
7:42 am

Oh and it appers commenters can make subtle racist quips about each other, but don’t you dare criticize restaurants….

Ned Ludd

June 8th, 2012
8:16 am

Although Brians original comment did sound like that of a competitor or disgruntled ex-employee and granted it was not very specific as to why he was displeased with Mr. Lewis, it was his opinion and I have seen many more comments that were more negative and less specific allowed to remain posted. Comments Mr K?

Brian

June 8th, 2012
9:17 am

I can promise all I am a customer and have not ever been in the res

Brian

June 8th, 2012
9:22 am

Sorry cut off in that last post…. I have not ever been in the restaurant business. I typically never meet or end up talking to ‘management’ when I eat places. But for whatever reason, the two out of three times I went to Bocado, Mr Lewis managed to tick off our party. I should have learned after the first time, but no, shame on me. And I have three sets of friends who have had similar experiences – including one who reserved a private room for a birthday party. I can give lots of details if folks want. And go check yelp. Where there is smoke there is fire. Remember the car valet/car theft issue? And how that was handled. Shall I go on?

otis

June 8th, 2012
9:34 am

i know the owner personally and it sounds like brian has some personal issues. the owner, brian lewis, is a great guy with no arrogance at all. after living in ny for many years, i can show you an owner with arrogance. at stg and bocado we are treated like family friends like all of his customers. both restaurants are very friendly and this is why we frequent both of them.

now that we are past that, i have to say that stg is an amazing place to go and enjoy authentic pizza. he has brought something to atlanta that has grown from passion and love to the public so i always hate seeing all of the negative comments. these small business owners have enough trouble getting a place like this open without having to deal with all of the negative comments. he is trying to step it up a little in atlanta and this should be embraced. he has paid close attention to every detail to bring you as close to an italian experience in food as possible including training with the best in ny and importing the equipment from italy. i travel to italy frequently and i can say he is dead on with this restaurant not only because of my experience but because of the comments of my italian friends who say bravo! it tastes like home:)

as far as the ipad comments. do like i do and put it aside and just ask for suggestions from the staff. they are extremely helpful.

John Kessler

June 8th, 2012
10:26 am

Brian – Your comment was removed because Mr. Lewis wrote and explained that you had a personal issue with him. He asked to have it removed, and when people ask, we make a case-by-case decision. I don’t claim to be a professional adjudicator of public discourse, but I try to keep the conversation on subject. So….
Your comment really had nothing to do with the food, service or atmosphere at STG. FWIW, we do attempt to remove all ad hominem attacks from the site, racist or otherwise, though it can be difficult to police the comments section 24 hours a day. I”m leaving up your follow-through comments for now, but if you have a gripe with Mr. Lewis, you can reach him at the restaurant.

John Kessler

June 8th, 2012
10:28 am

Sambo Grease – I think you and I are saying about the difference between STK and STG.

Brian

June 8th, 2012
10:37 am

Surprise surprise. Mr Lewis himself. Hope readers can see for themselves how ‘feedback’ is handled with this guy.

Charlotte K

June 8th, 2012
10:42 am

I sense in Mr. Kessler’s comments that he so highly respects the owner’s and chefs’ talent, skills and sophistication, that he is consequently taking a much harder line on them–much like a parent would demand the most from their oldest child. If taken in that context, readers should see that his comments appear to have the purpose of prodding them to perfection. I am not sure that this is made clear to readers except in Kessler’s comment buried in the very last lines, “STG Trattoria has got all the pieces in place — the urban edge, the sharp looks, the talented chef and the sincere spirit of hospitality. It’s now up to us to break it in.”
We have been three times now, and we find the food to amaze and delight us, creating a dining experience in the way that only star restauranteurs and chefs can. We have tried nearly half the menu, and so many dishes bring out the “oh my god!” responses that ensure that we will return again.
I fear that Mr. Kessler’s well-considered critique might single out the less important flaws at the expense of the most important strengths. However I, for one, admire these folk’s adventurous spirit into ipad wine lists, and creative bar construction even if these may have faults. And I am further blinded from these smaller issues when the hosts and servers welcome all so warmly and sincerely.

Brian

June 8th, 2012
10:42 am

And further, he would have had no clue who I was after my first post. Even after subsequent ones, i can guarantee he has no idea who i am. The character of an owner is as important to me as the quality of the food – and character is clear here. A tad bit of negative feedback and he gets the censorship cops out in full force. The AJC and Mr Lewis did a great job of making a mountain out of a mole hill.

Robert

June 8th, 2012
10:55 am

Time to give it a rest, Brian. I think you have make your point.

Betty McAlpin

June 8th, 2012
11:59 am

Any food critic who decibes a $32 bottle of wine as inexpensive has lost touch with the average diner. While not out outrageous, that price is far from cheap, and considering the cost of everything else on the menu, a bit absurd, as is the electronic wine list. The decor tries very hard to project a sophisticated urban-casual vibe, but once a few customers get in the door, the atmosphere becomes absolutely chaotic. We went twice, both times on a busy weekend evening. The servers scurried about seemingly without direction, the noise level was horrifyingly loud, the food was at best mediocre, and the service was at best, slipshod. It reminded our family of nothing so much as a hipster Chuck E. Cheese’s.

John Kessler

June 8th, 2012
12:14 pm

Charlotte K – I do have huge respect for both Brian Lewis and Josh Hopkins from their former ventures. I wish my meals at STG had had some more of those “oh my god!” moments you describe so well.
Betty M – That wine often retails for $20, so the markup is reasonable. Sure you might find a bottle of Mondavi Woodbridge for $22 elsewhere, but in context I think “inexpensive” is the just word. Eight bucks a glass is about the best you can hope for quality wine these days. When I start calling $45 bottles inexpensive, hit me with a reality check.

Krystle Meyer

June 9th, 2012
2:48 pm

@Betty McAlpin

Have you checked out the Olive Garden? $22 for a bottle of Sutter Home White Zin.