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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Food: 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