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Allegro: The Italian job

Midtown's latest taste of Italy

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We're in the middle of a small explosion of new Italian restaurants, if you haven't noticed. Tom Catherall has opened his first Italian spot, Lola, in the Terminus building in Buckhead. Valenza has replaced M!X in Brookhaven. Calavino's, a reincarnation of Roman Lily Café, has opened in Oakhurst.

And Allegro (560 Dutch Valley Road, 404-888-1890) has opened in the Midtown area, in a building across the street from One Midtown Kitchen. You would be right to guess that traffic on the street – especially when a meeting is in session at the nearby Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse – can be nightmarish. But there's valet parking for the restaurant, which is at the end of the street.

The restaurant, owned by Alberto Fedeli, bills itself as central/northern Italian, and the chef is Jose Rego, who most recently worked at Sotto Sotto and Fritti. You'll definitely feel the overlap in regional styles between Allegro and Sotto Sotto, and Rego's attention to sometimes surprising details will be familiar, too.

But let's take a look around first. The restaurant is sleek, almost minimalist, with the main visual feature being a large, colorful rendering of a commedia dell'arte-style pulcinella or harlequin. The dining room is curved and L-shaped, with the main wall lined with windows. There is a good bit of red paint in the restaurant, but it's subtle.

I wondered what the use of red might mean and Wayne, an ever-associative thinker, suggested it was an allusion to the usual red-and-white tablecloths in Italian restaurants. "Or," he said, "it could allude to China, from whom the Italians stole pasta."

OK. Or it could refer to the state of your budget after you eat here. Granted, we ate a good bit, but our bill, $120 after the tip, with only one glass of wine, seemed steep. Of course, I used to complain about the cost of the food at Sotto Sotto, too, and the truth is that Allegro costs about the same.

The menu is not as extensive as Sotto Sotto's, but you'll eat very well. We started with a caprese made with burrata, a soft mozzarella with cream, served with gently sauteed and cooled tomatoes, red pepper flakes, basil and olive oil. It was my favorite dish of the evening.

Next we decided to split a pasta course, selecting the paccheri. The dish was completely new to me, featuring specks and crispy little chunks of guanciale, a cured bacon made of pork cheeks. Also tossed with the pasta was roasted cauliflower in a light cream sauce with pecorino. Are you getting what I mean about Rego's attention to detail?

Entrees were good but honestly didn't quite measure up to our first two dishes. I ordered grilled chicken topped with prosciutto and fontina cheese, served with ratatouille, polenta and asparagus. The chicken, alas, was on the dry side. I never thought I'd say this, but the prosciutto's quantity was almost excessive. At $18, it's the cheapest meat entree on the menu, but I'd hesitate to order it again.

Wayne did much better with a chunk of snow-white halibut garnished with roasted peppers, capers and wild oregano, placed over a pool of seafood broth. He requested a spoon to lap up the broth and then was puzzled to see the delicious stuff disappearing before his eyes. As it turned out, the fish was served over a chunk of bread that sopped up the broth.

Desserts were a bit of a disappointment. A "tiramisu al limoncello," the favorite of our server, was a clever idea but really made me yearn for the more substantial flavors of traditional tiramisu, rather than the lemony fluff I was served. Wayne's zuppa inglese was better, had all the appropriate ingredients – but was served in a really unattractive goblet.

One oddity: Bread is served with hummus. I have no idea why. Personally, I'd rather have olive oil. Wayne said I was being stodgy. "It's the Mediterranean!" he said. "Hummus is everywhere."

Any major complaints? The restaurant had only been open two weeks when we visited, and the service is going to have to improve significantly for the restaurant to get an A-rating. We visited on a Monday night, and there were very few people dining, so volume can't be blamed for the server's continual slip-ups, forgetting requests or disappearing for lengthy periods.

The worst breakdown of service wasn't his fault at all. It apparently was the kitchen's. We had an interminable wait for our entrees. The first two courses came out quickly – too quickly, since both dishes were put on the table at the same time. And then we waited and waited and waited. We were given no explanation, but I did notice that others were having the same experience.

That aside, and I'm sure it will be remedied, Allegro is well worth a visit. There are also risottos, carpaccio of fish and beef and antipasti to be sampled.

Mexican seafood

As reported in our dining blog, OmnivoreATL.com, we recently discovered a new Mexican seafood restaurant that deserves your attention. El Veneno (5082 Buford Highway, 770-986-9568) is located next door to El Taco Veloz, in the building that was formerly the all-you-can-eat sushi bar, Toyotaya.

The cooking here is in the style of Nayarit, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. You'll start with a complimentary tostada piled with ceviche and served with a sauce that is literally the hottest I have ever encountered. A few drops of the sauce, made with habaneros, will keep your delicate little mouth on fire for half an hour. So when staff members give you a warning, believe them.

The standout dish here was a special – half a hollowed pineapple stuffed with seafood in a creamy sauce, topped with some cheese. It's a blend of sweet, fruity and piquant flavors. Wayne ordered a whole fried snapper – and received a whole fried tilapia – but had no complaints. It was topped with shrimp.

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