Atlanta Journal-Constitution dining writer John Kessler chimes in with a few food trends buzzing in Atlanta right now.
The opening of Varasano's Pizzeria has kicked off a new age of pizza one-upmanship in Atlanta that online pundits have dubbed the "Pizza Wars." Varasano, as Slice readers should know, is the displaced New Yorker who spent years trying to reverse engineer the pies from Patsy's. He detailed his experiments, scientific conclusions, and raucous pizza-tasting parties on a webpage that went viral in 2006. A first-time restaurateur, Varasano opened to consistency issues with his sourdough crust and mixed reviews from local critics. But he can make some phenomenal pies in his custom-designed electric oven from Sweden.
Not to be outdone, veteran restaurateur Riccardo Ullio brought in an ace Neapolitan pizzaiolo, Enrico Liberata, to goose his established spot, Fritti, which uses wood-fired ovens. The Concentrics Restaurant group joined the fray with Max's Coal Oven Pizzeria.
While these three were duking it out, Giovanni di Palma quietly opened Antico Pizzeria Napoletana with a plan to pre-bake pies for retail and a small on-site carryout operation with limited seating. As it turns out, the fresh Neapolitan pizzas are so good, people began lining up for them and then staging impromptu tailgates in the parking lot.
Three wood-fired ovens and Liberata (who jumped to this new venture) are the calling cards. But di Palma, who imports his own San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and Tipo "00" flour, is the real maestro at work. Seating seems to expand by the day, and a liquor license is in the works.
A number of Atlanta chefs aren't content to simply buy produce from local farmers but rather, grow it themselves. Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, who live on Summerland Farm, an hour north of the city, keep their fine restaurants (Bacchanalia, Quinones at Bacchanalia, Abattoir, Floataway Café) awash in farm eggs, watermelons and herbs.
Billy Allin farms a sunny half acre in his suburban backyard to supply his nearby restaurant, Cakes & Ale, with heirloom tomatoes throughout the summer. Nick Rutherford and Molly Gunn also grow tomatoes for their funky intown pub, The Porter Beer Bar, on a nearby lot where they've assumed squatters' rights. Hector Santiago (a contestant on Top Chef: Las Vegas) climbs a rickety ladder to the flat rooftop of his Pura Vida Tapas bar, where he maintains an ample chile garden.
Canoe Restaurant, sadly, had just planted a bounteous fall garden along the banks of the Chattahoochee River, but the recent Atlanta floods wiped it out before submerging the restaurant under six feet of water. The refurbished restaurant is aiming for a November reopening (and chef Grant Gould promises the garden will be back).
The locus of Atlanta's Korean (and Vietnamese, Salvadoran and Mexican) dining scene has long been Buford Highway, the multi-lane turnpike that shoots northward from the city through miles upon miles of reclaimed strip shopping centers. Grungy décor and great charcoal-fired kalbi have long been the hallmarks of Buford Highway dining. But as the city's thriving Korean population has grown wealthier and more established, a vibrant new collection of restaurants has opened in and around the suburb of Duluth.
A young, stylish crowd goes to the swank, industrial-chic Honey Pig to cook fat tiles of pork belly and kimchee on heated metal domes to a Korean technopop soundtrack.
At Umaido, Korean-style ramen is made in house behind a glass wall and delivered to guests who wait at counters in a slender, colorful room. The toothsome noodles in porky broth could pass for Japanese ramen, save for the kimchee and garlic presses at each table. Bud Namu serves a crisp-skinned clay-roasted duck filled with sticky purple rice and red dates, while the Korean fried chicken, sweet-potato pizza and tofu soup shops are plentiful.
South in the Mouth
One local restaurant publicist refuses to let her clients refer to their restaurants as "Southern farm-to-table," fearing the term has become a cliché. But such is the overriding focus of Atlanta dining today. The twin national obsessions with local provender and resuscitating comfort-food classics dovetail perfectly in this Southern capital, where many residents still recall meals on the grandparents' farms.
Chefs like Woodfire Grill's Kevin Gilllespie (another contestant on Top Chef: Las Vegas) vie to serve the best fried okra, chicken, and pickles and deconstruct everything from chicken and dumplings to pimento cheese.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best: in the height of the summer tomato frenzy, chef Hilary White at The Hil caused a sensation by executing a Platonic ideal of the Southern tomato sandwich with her own white yeast loaves, homemade mayonnaise and tomatoes from the garden outside her door.