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Ciao chow

Ippolito's serves predictable Italian family fare

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Mark my words: Restaurants soon will begin following the example of movies and playhouses and start instructing their patrons to silence their cell phones. You'll see discreet signs in the lobby, or maybe a gentle message in the corner of your menu, to please refrain from emitting distracting beeps.

No doubt some places have already started the practice, but Ippolito's has not. At a lunch visit to the Italian restaurant's Sandy Springs franchise, electronic warbles repeatedly resounded, and one table of office-worker knuckleheads took turns calling each other, apparently to see who had the most piercing personal signal.

Such sounds tend to merge with the rest of the babble at Ippolito's, a family- style Italian place with a high noise level. Ippolito's began when a couple transplanted from Connecticut opened a trattoria in Atlanta, and now six restaurants make up a chain around the northern 'burbs providing fast and reliable takes on traditional Italian dishes.

The tables don't feature candlesticks in Chianti bottles, but the decor otherwise meets most stereotypes, from the red-and-white checked tablecloths to the music of Tony Bennett on the stereo. The Sandy Springs Ippolito's has something of a sports bar atmosphere, with televisions in nearly every corner. Some decorating touches blur the line between kitschy and tacky, like the bar section's mural of Frank Sinatra, the Godfather III poster, the cartoony paintings of elderly Italians and the poster of the biker chick in the hall near the restrooms. It may be that the harsh light of day doesn't show Ippolito's best side, as it's much more mellow in the evening.

At nearly every family-style Italian place, the showcase foodstuff is not the pasta or pizza so much as the garlic bread -- the opening act that proves more memorable than the headliner. You wouldn't call Ippolito's garlic rolls a subtle creation, as they're big hunks of bread doused in parmesan cheese and chopped parsley, redolent of garlic and olive oil. Occasionally a bit too doughy, they're nevertheless thick, fragrant and unquestionably fun to chew.

My experience with the entrees has been less consistent. The shrimp rigatoni ($8.95) provides a huge helping of rigatoni pasta with five shrimp and sauteed vegetables in a buttery garlic and white wine sauce that proved flavorful albeit too rich. (It's never a good sign when you have plenty of food left over, but demur the opportunity to take it home).

The seafood stuffed shells ($9.50) fill a metal baking dish with a high-temperature melange worthy of Mt. Vesuvius. Shrimp, scallop, grouper and a blend of ricotta and romano cheeses fill the shells, which are submerged in marinara and topped with mozzarella. Taken in bites all at once, it's a pleasingly hot, hearty, cheesy mess. It proves less entrancing when you focus on the individual components, like how modest the seafood morsels are in size, or how the shell-stuffing by itself resembles a kind of characterless, institutional gumbo.

The kitchen handles its calzones with aplomb, based on a grilled chicken calzone special ($9.25), which has many competing flavors, including spicy oregano and the ricotta and mozzarella cheese, but not so many as to overwhelm the chicken itself, which still proved moist and tasty.

From the varied menu, the simplicity of its hand-tossed pizza proved most impressive. The 9-inch combination pizzas provide more than enough for one person, with the red hot chicken peppers variety ($7.95) featuring vibrant strips of red pepper, unobtrusive bits of poultry and scorching cherry peppers that lurk like land mines. The dough itself suggests that any variety of Ippolito's pizza is worth trying, as it's thick, firm and crisp, without being too brittle.

With the quantity of customers who troop through, service remains friendly and accommodating. Despite those pesky cell phones. Ippolito's may not be the ideal place for a romantic evening for two, but nevertheless can provide a quick, efficient fix of garlic and mozzarella.

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