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Review: La Grotta

Classic Italian in Buckhead ages gracefully

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What's the difference between classic and dated? Is a restaurant dated if it resides in the basement of a condo building that's clearly seen better days? Does a décor of flowered cloth and a soundtrack of opera point to a lack of modernity that's regrettable? Or does it hearken to a time when service was king, when restaurants were congenial respites from the fast pace of the world?

These are the questions one grapples with when evaluating La Grotta, the 33-year-old Italian restaurant that was once the pinnacle of fine dining in Buckhead. Opened in 1978 by Sergio Favalli, along with chef Antonio Abizanda, La Grotta introduced Atlanta to Italian beyond baked ziti and eggplant parm. The restaurant has changed little since then. Favalli still glides from table to table emanating avuncular warmth. Abizanda, who lives in an apartment above the restaurant, still helms the kitchen. What other restaurant in Atlanta has had the same chef for 33 years? If there is one, I can't think of it.

There's no question that entering La Grotta is like stepping back in time. Pulling off of Peachtree Road and descending to the dimly lit dining room, you arrive squarely in the late '70s. And promptly feel as though maybe, the late '70s could teach the 2010s a thing or two.

What could La Grotta teach the restaurants of today? Service.

From the minute Favalli or his son Christian greets you at the door, you're swathed in good will. Whisked away to your seat, at least two and often three waiters will appear bearing water and bread, which is served with butter, olive oil and a rustic chicken liver pâté. The menu is huge, but waiters make it clear the kitchen is here to please you: If you desire something you don't see, they will do their best to make it happen.

Waiters are formal but friendly, jokey even, but with a restraint and grace that avoids shtick. They know what liquors they have behind the bar. They know the menu like they wrote it themselves. They know the broad, beautiful wine list and speak about it with authority. There are easy sells on the wine list — big American names, familiar Italian grapes. But servers thrill at the chance to introduce something new.

The menu is somewhat overwhelming. That old-school idea, that a restaurant should provide almost anyone with almost anything their heart desires, makes for some tough decisions. Hot or cold appetizers? Pasta or fish? Veal or steak? Let me help you out. Cold appetizers. Pasta. Steak.

I loved the entirely retro veal appetizer featuring slices of roasted veal with celery salad, capers and tuna sauce. Yup, tuna sauce, mild, creamy, and perfect alongside the crisp crunch of thinly sliced celery and the soft folds of meat.

The fresh baby artichokes appetizer is not quite what you'd expect. Rather than the usual marinated or steamed preparation, here they are shaved raw, the flavor bolder, sweeter and more vegetal.

Both pasta and risotto are prepared traditionally and without fanfare to huge success. Tortelloni stuffed with braised onions and prosciutto was all about the texture and flavor of the pasta itself. Yes, the onions' roasty sweetness permeated the dish, yes, the tomato sauce was perfectly light and tart. But the pasta tasted like the best part of the inside of quality pizza crust.

Here's where the restaurants of today could teach La Grotta a thing or two: Entrées. At La Grotta, almost every entrée has the same accompaniment of piped, whipped potatoes, a handful of green beans and two baby carrots. I'm guessing that if the kitchen changed this familiar setup, regular customers would riot. The sameness would be less of a problem if the proteins on the plate were more exciting. But I found the Dover sole bland and a smidge overcooked. Veal Marsala tasted exactly as it should — that is to say, thinly sliced veal, rich Marsala sauce with all the depth and oxidized nuttiness of that wine, plump mushrooms ... and yet, here was where the food felt dated rather than classic. In the 30 or so years since this style of cooking was the standard for fancy restaurants, freshness has become king. Rich flavor profiles are now used more sparingly, and usually in tandem with something vivid, something clean. There's a guilty pleasure in indulging in that straight-up wine and butter lavishness, but even so, this is one place where modernity has the upper hand.

It's impossible to argue with La Grotta's filet of beef, however, despite it being bathed in Gorgonzola and served with a slight variance on the sides (the mashed potatoes have pesto folded in). This is a glorious hunk of cow, hefty, tangy, buttery, as serious in its red-blooded appeal as any steak in town.

Is there any dessert as tired as tiramisù? Or any more lovely when done right? La Grotta's has every aspect in perfect balance — the cream thick and luscious, the cake soaked just so, the cocoa providing the necessary bitter edge. It's a glorious smoosh, and a nice reminder that quality never goes out of style.

On a recent Friday night, La Grotta's clientele was made up mainly of elderly couples, although there were a few older gentlemen with not-so-elderly companions. The room also held second and third generation customers — wealthy young families who spoke to Favalli as if he were a favorite uncle when he approached their table, arms outstretched. It's this dynamic that makes La Grotta so endearing, this idea of service as an extension of family. Even on a first or second visit, guests are made to feel so welcome, so enveloped in gracious hospitality, it's hard to resist falling in love with the place.

It may be endangered in this age of irony and swagger, but good service will always be classic.

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