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Neither wacky nor wild

Paul Luna shows his assaggini at Lunatique

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I went to Lunatique in the downtown Wyndham Hotel (160 Spring St., 404-688-8600) on the evening the MTV show The Osbournes began its third season. That show, sort of a reality-version of "Ozzie and Harriet" for the post-goth, turns satanic rocker and bat-biter Ozzy Osbourne into a lovable father.

Odd how bad boys can pass into the mainstream, isn't it? The outrageous gets appropriated by Mr. Money and the thing that made the bad boy bad suddenly loses its edge. I won't torture myself with the thought that this may be inevitable. I'll simply note that there's some sense of this in Lunatique, a project of the Wyndham and Paul Luna, the prince of Atlanta's culinary bad boys.

I won't repeat Luna's full resume here again. Everyone knows he became as famous for his behavior as for his cooking in the several restaurants he opened here earlier. Being evicted because he didn't like your attitude or having him dance nearly naked on your table were the risks you took to enjoy his creative cuisine, which ultimately came to be mainly tapas. Obviously, Luna has taken pride in his crazy rep, usually christening his restaurants with puns of his own name: Luna Si, Loca Luna and now Lunatique.

I'm afraid there's nothing very authentically wild and crazy about this new restaurant. It very much continues the mainstreaming of Luna's vision, an effort that failed quickly at his last venture, Cafe Mystique in Buckhead. Even a nude brunch that pathetically caused the media a massive case of heavy breathing could not eclipse notice of Luna's odd offering of over-priced tapas served on credenzas that made one's table look like a landing pad for flying saucers.

This restaurant, open just over a month, depends mainly on those big kitschy ceramic food sculptures you used to see in New York for its aesthetic. My mother told me they were the sure sign that Italians were lurking nearby. There's a big rooster holding a serving tray. A shark does the same thing. There are goofy-looking ceramic chefs. Chandeliers are draped in fabrics and hung with beads. A mural, which predates the restaurant, looks painted in that New Deal workers style.

The menu is all assaggini -- Italian small plates. Luna's vision prevails but the actual chef is Damiano DeNicolo. Here's the good news: You can eat like a pig for very little money. Nothing costs over $6. We ordered eight dishes and spent under $40. But here's the bad news: We tasted very little that would make that big rooster crow.

There were highlights. The grilled flatbread, salty and crisp, was served with a startling eggplant spread and some marinated olives. (The spread changes regularly.) Seared salmon in a fennel crust over sauteed spinach with some sliced roasted red peppers was my favorite dish. I was most surprised by the partially hollowed tomato filled with Italian sausage and some melting Buffalo mozzarella, probably my second-favorite.

The pollo cacciatore featured two pieces of chicken stewed in tomatoes -- nice -- and served over unappetizing potato wedges with a vaguely Cajun kick. Three olives were perfunctorily thrown on the plate. I liked the spare ribs marinated and grilled in a peanut glaze, but they were far too oily. Even the coleslaw over which they were served had taken on the greasy fat of the ribs.

Skewers are competent but zing-less. One skewer with chicken sounds altogether compelling because of its glaze of fig-balsamic vinaigrette, but it's hardly noticeable. Somewhat better, but mainly because of its side of couscous, was the skewered steak in Limoncello rosemary vinaigrette. A plate of shrimp sauteed in garlic and olive oil and served in their shells is a surprisingly large serving but, again, weirdly flat in flavor.

Pump up the lunacy, Paul.

Do it yourself

If you want to create your own meal of assaggini, head to Salumeria Taggiasca at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market (209 Edgewood Ave., 404-524-0006). I've been visiting Bess Boeri and Ana Debenedictis almost weekly for about a year, if only to buy the fresh pecorino that I eat nearly every morning melted on ciabatta with some olive oil and rosemary.

This Italian market, Atlanta's most authentic by any standard, sells a full array of Italian cheese and sausages. My favorite of the latter is the cacciatorini -- a wrinkled wind-dried sausage with a hint of garlic. It has long been favored by hunters who carry it like beef jerky. To my palate, it is especially good with complex cheeses. I also like the hot soppressata -- the traditional all pork salami infused with some hot chilies. Mortadella -- basically mottled Italian bologna made from pork that was traditionally ground in a mortar (thus its name) -- makes an inexpensive sandwich.

Marinated anchovies, octopus salad, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and all kinds of olives are also available for your assaggini plates. I have always liked the black-olive tapenade here but lately the deli has been making one with green olives. I have eaten the stuff on bread, coated steaks with it and even tossed pasta with it. There is also a sundried tomato spread. Pasta sauces made on the premises include pesto, walnut, marinara and bolognese sauces. The walnut is interesting on fish or chicken too.

What else? A full line of olive oils and balsamic vinegars and a menu of sandwiches of the sort you can buy on the streets of Rome.

Readers' Recommendations.

Eddie Chapman writes to recommend Panasia in Roswell (1580 Holcomb Bridge Road, Suite 23, 770-594-2132): "Excellent traditional Vietnamese food, extremely fresh ingredients, and the owner, Li, is literally the nicest person I have ever met. The space is very nicely transformed from the old Olympic Greek Restaurant. They also do specials on weekends."

Brenda Burke writes to praise Carrie's Diner in Tucker (4403 Holcomb Bridge Road, 770-492-0055): "Great Southern-style entrees and vegetables (the selection changes daily) and the best fried catfish I've ever had. It's family owned and operated -- really good people. If you want to try the catfish, call ahead. The food is wonderful but the service not speedy unless you order from the steam table."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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