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Independent streak

Shorty's creative cuisine give Toco Hills residents cause for celebration

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The goateed guy who works the salad and app station at Shorty's looks up from his most recently completed task. He notices me sitting at the counter by my lonesome, watching him intently, and he cocks an eyebrow in my direction.

"This your order of guacamole?"

I nod eagerly. He lifts the dish over his workspace and sets it in front of me. Any initial skepticism I had about guac being served in what is essentially a midscale pizza restaurant dissolves. It radiates an immediate freshness. The avocado is ripe and creamy, and has been left barely mashed in appealing chunks, rather than obliterated to indistinct smoothness. It hums with lime and hasn't been overly jacked with garlic. Diced tomato and flecks of cilantro provide humble yet vital collaboration, like the backup vocals on a Luther Vandross tune.

Even crackery shards of flatbread artfully arranged around the plate strike the right chord. I'm amazed I don't long for tortilla chips instead. This stuff is better than the guacamole served in nearly all the Mexican restaurants I've visited in town. It is made with abundant sincerity.

Better still, it's made in Toco Hills.

This neighborhood has been infested with fast food and "fast-casual" chains in recent years and, as one of its nearby residents, I'm relieved that a promising kernel of independence has at last burgeoned in the area.

I'm not alone. Bryan Wilson, a former owner of Dish who opened Sporty's with longtime co-workers Michael Murphy and Brian Hogan, must be relieved himself to see the word getting out so quickly. In just a month, the restaurant has attracted a steady, cross-generational crowd that crams the dining room on weekend nights.

And that's despite the vague, goofy name and the somewhat peculiar location. Sporty's is at the far end of a small shopping mall that has been largely taken over by LA Fitness. They make a jarring duo: the behemoth, florescent workout center and the wood-paneled little boîte with a beckoning, buttery radiance.

Guilty thoughts of treadmills and free weights swiftly dissolve once you're ensconced inside. The space is long and lithe, and reminds me of the small but ambitious eateries I used to frequent on New York's Upper West Side. Like those, the kitchen here is utterly exposed, a small space where the cooks keep their heads down and their hands blurry with activity to create a fourth wall of concentration.

Well, maybe the pizza maker will sneak a proud peek at the admiring customers when he air-spins a hunk of dough into a particularly precise circle. Shorty's wood-fired pies are the best newcomers to Atlanta's challenged pizza scene in recent memory. They may not have the same charred authenticity of Fritti or Baraonda, but the red sauce shows nuance, the crust crackles satisfyingly between your teeth and the toppings are vibrant and copious.

The menu lets you nimbly navigate between mainstream pizza constructions and more inventive concoctions. Sid Vicious, one of the signature pies named after dubious musical celebrities, comes with black forest ham, salami, sausage, pepperoni and ground beef. Um, nitrates, anyone? If you like that sort of all-American carnage, the Sid has a sense of integrity you won't come across in a Meat Lover's Pizza from Pizza Hut.

Personally, I'm kinda stuck in the '90s when it comes to "gourmet" pizza. I'm all about the roasted action -- roasted (read: caramelized) onions, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic. That's exactly what I had on my first visit. The onions were sharp and sweet, the whole garlic cloves were melting and mellow, and the peppers emanated a juicy piquancy. Judicious blobs of buffalo mozzarella added sultry punctuation.

Then there's the gem a roommate and I discovered in college: feta, pineapple and pesto (as a topping over the red sauce). Sound questionable? I've turned more than one office of colleagues into converts. The salty feta tempers the cloying pineapple, and the flavors of the pesto bloom against the tomato sauce with an herbaceous insistence. That's a food writery way of saying it's delicious. And Shorty's did the combo ample justice.

Yet part of what makes Shorty's distinctive is how, like the guacamole, the other menu items -- particularly the savory ones -- are handled as thoughtfully as the pizza. Spaghetti squash finds apt pairing for its lacy appeal with crunchy walnuts and dense ricotta salata. An antipasto platter includes high-quality olives, marinated artichoke hearts, a creamy slice or two of Gorgonzola, and a revolving selection of salami-type sausage. Rocket (aka arugula) salad is bracing with lemon, if a tad skimpy on the Parmesan shavings.

If you're looking to bypass pizza, the menu also offers a succinct entree list of three choices. A roasted chicken number tastes like a bland, middle-of-the-road effort most anyone could make at home, but fish (tilapia when I try it) cooked in parchment has heart. Thyme, zucchini, roasted tomatoes and a generous spritz of olive oil go into the parchment package with the fish filet. The ingredients bond and intensify while baking in the package, and it comes to the table carefully unwrapped and aromatically steamy.

Desserts often get the least amount of attention at a new restaurant. Shorty's warm chocolate chip cookies sound homey, but the recipe is off -- the cookies are too floury. Likewise, a small but whole Key lime pie with lots of graham cracker crust looks lusciously soothing ... until I dig in to find that the filling has not completely set. I'd love the kitchen to dream up one slightly more original dessert that gets the same nurturing attention as much of the savory food does.

Then again, dessert isn't a crucial component to an affordable neighborhood hang. But well-crafted pizza or zingy guacamole is. Who knew they'd go so well together? Welcome to Toco Hills, guys.

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