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Staff, surroundings are pleasant at Oscar's Villa Capri, but main dish could fare better

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There are never enough little neighborhood places as far as I'm concerned -- no matter where in the metro area you happen to live. By definition, one shouldn't have to jump in the car and motor all over town to get to a neighborhood restaurant. But this is Atlanta, where we have to drive somewhere for every little thing.

That being the case, you should know about Oscar's Villa Capri, which is tucked into a corner of the Orchard Park shopping center, located in that triangular area defined by Dun- woody Club Drive, Jett Ferry Road and Mt. Vernon. (Look for the Kroger.)

In a perfect world, Oscar's would be the find of all finds, a cozy family-run nook from which the aromas of the staples of southern Italian cuisine would waft into the parking lot. A place where you and everyone you know would want to stay and linger.

You will linger, all right, because the service is slow. But at least that is because the staff is minuscule, not because they are indifferent. So while utensils, grated cheese, a particular dish or the check tend to arrive at odd times, they will arrive in the hands of someone pleasant.

The surroundings are pleasant as well, just what you would expect. Just inside the front door, a traditional hammered copper espresso machine sits on a table pushed up against the front window. The walls and shelves are covered with photographs and cups and knickknacks. Colorful cotton, fringed lap throws, most depicting seafood, hang from the ceiling. There's a bottle of the evening's featured wine on each of the closely packed tables. Low lighting makes the green and mustard color scheme appear to glow.

Crammed into the front seating area -- oddly, this small rectangular section comprises both non-smoking seating and the bar, where smoking is permitted -- is a small display case featuring the night's desserts and antipasti. This is not as odd a juxtaposition as it first seems; one tasty tidbit punctuates the beginning of the meal, the other takes care of the end.

As it happens, the beginning and the end are the most consistent parts of the meal. In between, you are going to pay as much for a main dish as you would at Buckhead's La Grotta, the city's premier Italian restaurant, and the quality and finish of the dish will not be anywhere as high.

But to start at the beginning, of course there is the typical antipasti -- meats and cheeses. This is a good time and place to try something different, however, a small plate of cold eggplant, roasted red peppers, shiitake mushrooms, capers and a small square of mozzarella. If you think you don't like eggplant, this preparation will change your mind. It's delicious, light and flavorful.

Lightness and flavor are two things that were, unfortun-ately, missing from our main dishes: gnocchi and cioppino. The gnocchi was noticeably heavy, a condition not enhanced by an especially spicy tomato sauce. These little pillows of pasta should be lighter than air, and whatever sauce there is should be the same. For someone who loves gnocchi as much as I do, Oscar's idea of the dish was a tremendous disappointment.

Cioppino was somewhat better, mostly because it was so generously sized, loaded with fish and shellfish. But again, the sauce lacked character. We chose red over white when given the choice -- which I thought was odd, given that this San Francisco dish is traditionally a glorious fish stew in tomato broth. Oscar's was served on a large oval platter, making it awkward to eat.

Oscar's menu is loaded with lobster steak, and the typical veal and chicken dishes. All are uncommonly pricey, considering the part of town, the ambiance, the service and other amenities. Given that, you are better off sticking with pasta. The linguine, for example, is tender and tasty, and won't set you back the more than $20 the other main dishes will.

Oscar's Villa Capri, 2090 Dunwoody Club Drive at Jett Ferry Road in the Orchard Park shopping center (look for Kroger), Dunwoody, 770-392-7940. Open for dinner only: Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5:30-9 p.m. Expensive, especially in relation to the whole experience, and compared with other restaurants. Average price of entree, $20. Credit cards. Dress: casual. Ambiance: little place around the corner for family and neighbors. No-smoking section. Wheelchair accessible.

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