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Chefs to watch 2011

Five Atlanta culinary talents to keep an eye on

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JOSE REGO

"It seems that no matter what, I always end up coming back to work with Riccardo," Jose Rego says. The chef who originally teamed up with restaurateur Riccardo Ullio in the kitchen at Sotto Sotto has bounced around a bit since leaving his post there in 2006. But now he's back working with Ullio at Escorpion, the Mexican restaurant and tequila bar Ullio opened in late May.

If that sounds familiar, it's because this collaboration is reminiscent of Ullio and Rego's last dance together at Lupe, the Mexican restaurant that replaced Cuerno, Ullio's attempt at authentic Spanish cuisine. Lupe was hardly revelatory. It suffered from all the clichés of gringo-pleasing upscale Mexican food. Lupe had an air of desperation around it: Ullio's wild ambition with Cuerno and Beleza next door had fallen flat, and Lupe seemed like an attempt to regain some ground with pedestrian food and tons of tequila. It was a head-scratcher because Rego has proven he's a fantastic cook.

Remember Allegro? That strange and strangely brilliant Italian restaurant in the Dutch Valley Road spot that now houses Amuse? Allegro's mix of old-fashioned Italian grandiosity and Rego's quirky modern-meets-old-world cooking was lost on Atlanta diners, tucked away as it was in an odd building down a residential side street. But it left little doubt that the chef, when given the right outlet, is capable of greatness.

Early meals at Escorpion, before Rego came on board, had mixed success. While more promising than Lupe, the best dishes seemed to be of the gloppy, tequila-soaking variety. And while the place was packed, Ullio recognized that the food could use an upgrade.

For Ullio, and for Rego, Escorpion needs to be a success. When talent, ambition and high stakes collide, it's always interesting to watch.

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