Do you remember why you fell in love with restaurants in the first place? I’d like to say that for me, it was the philosophy behind the care and respect for organic vegetables, or the realization that an inspired dish of food could nourish the soul. But I’d be lying. In reality, my love affair started at my best friend’s 10th birthday. Her father took us to a fancy restaurant — it was the first one I’d ever been to. I remember my awe at the dining room's mirrors and soft lighting, the waiters in tuxedos, the sound of glasses clinking and people talking and laughing. It was like magic, a fantasy, a place where the entire purpose of its existence was to create relaxation and joy.
The first time I entered Pricci I was reminded of that original experience. After devoting so much time to thinking and writing about the new breed of restaurant, where casual hipsterdom and the ethics of produce are the main selling points, Pricci seemed like a welcome reminder of upscale dining’s original intent.
Waiters in white tuxedos glide around a room that’s almost comically clichéd, the Disney version of an Italian restaurant, with mirrors on the walls, Art Deco-inspired decorative touches, and clubby, circular booths. If it’s a bit silly, it's in equal measure pure fun, an unabashed homage to the idea that dining out is (and should be) a form of entertainment.
Buckhead Life may have fallen from its spot as Atlanta’s most exciting restaurant group, but if we have an equivalent of New York’s famed restaurateur Danny Meyer in Atlanta, it’s BLRG’s owner Pano Karatassos. The group’s restaurants may tend to veer too far into safe territory, neglecting authenticity or inventiveness along the way. But Karatassos has an obsession with consistency and service, as well as the serious business of fantasy-creation. At Pricci, the addition of a passionate chef with a determination to bring the soul of Italian cooking to his customers makes the restaurant especially remarkable.
Buckhead Life opened Pricci in 1991, and Piero Premoli, a native of Milan, has been the restaurant's chef since 2005. Over the past four years, he’s been steadily building his kitchen staff, luring young Italian chefs to Atlanta. In recent years he’s started an exchange program between Buckhead Life and a few restaurants in Italy. His kitchen is now made up almost exclusively of Italian cooks.
Knowing this fact ahead of time made me hopeful of a menu full of super authentic Italian food, so I was somewhat disappointed to see a fairly standard list of Italian-American favorites on the regular menu. Calamari, chopped salad, pizza, pasta, fish, veal. It’s easy to become jaded when you see menu items done to death. But ultimately, Pricci reminded me of how delightful this type of food can be when done exceptionally well.
Beef carpaccio over a bed of arugula was vibrant in color and flavor and buttery in texture. A tiny smattering of the cutest house-pickled mushrooms took the dish to a more thoughtful place, giving a small, acidic, but charmingly floral burst to every few bites.
All the pasta is house-made, and walks that enchanted line between delicacy and heartiness. Artichoke and spinach tortelli appear as fat pillows with long pasta wings on each end, the filling made fluffy from ricotta. Bathed in brown butter and complemented by pine nuts and fresh tomato, the dish hits exactly the right notes of flavor, comfort and balance.
While the regular menu offers plenty of classic dishes, the excitement often lies on the specials menu. A recent special entrée offered a hulking veal chop, served with a hash of tiny diced potatoes, guaniciale (pig’s jowl) and artichokes, at once smoky, vegetal, crunchy and savory.
For his upcoming October menu, which features Sicily (and is available as a three-course special for $29.95, or $39.95 with paired Sicilian wines), Premoli spent weeks researching Sicilian food, and hours on the phone to chefs in Sicily. The menu has items such as heirloom tomato and baby eggplant soup served with a crostino of Sicilian smoked tuna. Now that’s something you’re not likely to find on a standard Italian menu around town.
There are places where the need to please all people who walk through the doors seems to compromise the cooking. I found the margherita pizza lacking in acid, the cheese and bread outweighing the sauce. A panzanella salad was basically a slightly bland tomato, cucumber and pepper salad with large croutons, not the wonderful juxtaposition of soggy and crusty bread married to tomatoes and vinegar that panzanella can achieve.
But in so many other ways — in those perfect, tiny cannolis for dessert, exhibiting exactly the right amount of crunch in the wrapping and understated, orange zest in the filling, in the exciting Italian wine list, and in the care taken with almost all aspects of the menu — Pricci excells at all the little things that make fine dining so much fun.
So go ahead. Get dressed up. Drive to Buckhead. Let yourself be immersed in the fantasy. And don’t be surprised if you get some first-rate food and service while you’re at it.