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Little Italy

Italian restaurants don't have to be 'grand' to be great. Di Paolo proves the point

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There is a certain nostalgia and romance associated with Italian restaurants. Just thinking about Italian food conjures images of gaiety, swagger and fun, of great restaurants in the old-fashioned sense, where the hosts are legendary, the band is swingin' and the food is better than any you've actually ever had.

Those of us who have made it to Italy know how good Italian food can be, and there are some folks who have managed to bring those flavors to our shores. But there is something in particular about the American-Italian restaurant that diners long for. The success of Maggiano's in the malls of America is a testament to this longing -- Maggiano's pretends to be that great and grand Italian restaurant we've all seen in the movies but have never come across in real life.

So a truly great Italian restaurant is something to be celebrated. Di Paolo in Alpharetta is such a restaurant, and perhaps even more charming because it retains all the charisma of those cinematic, old-fashioned Italian restaurants without any sense of artifice or theatrics. The result is welcoming, bustling and warm. Highly professional, black-clad waiters flit around the room dropping perfectly executed food that is neither pretentious nor homey.

Because seriously, when was the last time you had veal parmigiana or lamb scallopini made from high-quality meat that had actually been pounded out with a mallet and cooked to perfection? Unless you have an Italian grandmother who cooks all day, the answer might be never. Many Italian specialties have been beaten to death over the years -- sugar added to the sauces, meat pre-pounded and flavorless, pastas heavy-handed and leaden. How ubiquitous have dishes like this become in mediocre restaurants? How jaded have we become, how impervious to the gleeful trappings of breaded meat, and cheese and tomatoes? Which isn't to say that fantastic Italian food is hard to come by, just that so many Italian dishes have become passé in good restaurants simply because so many people have done them badly. Di Paolo revives these dishes and, through the art of masterful cooking, takes traditional flavors and reminds us why they became favorites in the first place.

Handmade goat cheese ravioli served with tomatoes and portobellos, enveloped in the scent and flavor of truffles is a dark and fragrant forest of a dish, and has been haunting me ever since I scarfed it down one Wednesday night sitting at the bar. Di Paolo seems to be always busy, and the small bar is a buzz of activity, with girlfriends giggling about men, couples waiting for tables and enthusiastic diners quizzing the bartender about specials. Jennifer, who presides over the bar most evenings, operates on the highest level of that profession, executing a perfect mix of speed, banter and memory. Having never seen me before in her life, she remembered the intricacies of my meal days later, despite having been awhirl in customers the whole time she served me.

Eating at the bar can be a tad toasty -- the wood-burning oven behind the bar gives off some serious heat. The main dining room has been recently redecorated, the primary addition being a couple of large canvases that are the exact color of the wall behind them. The restaurant retained its mascot in the redesign: a large painting of a monk eating pasta. The room won't likely win any awards for décor, but it's comfortable. And, anyway, with food this good, who cares?

Because here comes that lamb scallopini, beaten thin and miraculously still cooked a pink medium, as tender as can be and served with pine nuts, potatoes, green beans and mint, jumbled together under the meat. The veal parmigiana is served over a wonderfully fresh arugula salad with sweet summer cherry tomatoes. At this time of year, I tend to fetishize tomatoes, and these are worthy of the attention. Mussels with tomato and zucchini could use a tad more of that wine zing, but the flavors are pure and true. Fish dishes, like trout over another jumble of green veggies and potatoes, are fresh and satisfying, each ingredient seeming to have been plucked from the garden or stream minutes earlier.

Dessert here is another exercise in taking classics and reinstating their glory. Maple-mascarpone cheesecake is light and fluffy, the sweet maple cut through with tart cheese. The tiramisu is rich and creamy, the chocolate perhaps a little more assertive than a strictly traditional version, but who doesn't like to hear chocolate speak up every now and then -- even out of turn?

The wine list is another pleasant surprise, with varied and affordable selections. The California cabs are represented for the big-wine set, but Italian greats like amarones and Soaves make for more traditional and satisfying pairings with the rustic food.

Di Paolo's one downside is that it shows up the Maggianos of this world so brutally, and all those soggy tiramisus and leathery veal parmigianas that may have previously passed muster on your palate now reveal their utter inferiority. Take heart, because that Italian restaurant you have pined for exists, and it's only an Alpharetta away.

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