Review: Double Zero’s shared plates can delight; pizza, pasta miss mark

In its new home in Emory Village, Double Zero is a packed house during peak dine times. Varied seating — high tops, low tops, a community table, a gorgeous bar and lounge area with banquette seating, the requisite patio — are filled with an assortment of parties — dates and double dates of young and old, clusters of college kids, families, too.

The high energy at Double Zero fills me up. The food leaves me wanting.

The Castellucci Hospitality Group holds court over Double Zero. The group is young and energetic under the direction of Castellucci Hospitality Group co-owners and siblings Federico Castellucci III, Stephanie and John Castellucci.  Among its holdings are Spanish concepts Iberian Pig, Cooks & Soldiers and forthcoming tapas spot Bar Mercado at Krog Street Market. The Castelluccis are also the force behind Sugo in Johns Creek. However, having dined at Double Zero since it relocated last year from Sandy Springs, I will not look here for Italian or for the modern Italian-American that it now claims to offer.

The restaurant has two impressive-looking wood-fired brick ovens, open for all the world to see — even through a glass window in the bathroom hallway — and yet it serves a floppy pizza, hardly the crisp, crackly crust and steaming hot, blistered toppings I anticipated, particularly because, prior to the move, its name was Double Zero Napoletana. Even if the flour — the double zero that lends this place a name — is authentic, the soggy pizza coming out of the oven is not Neapolitan.

Topping-wise, the nicely salty, gamy character of prosciutto and the peppery bite of arugula could not rectify an unimpressive tomato sauce on the M.P.A. pie. Capers, corn and spring onions with roots still intact on the Stagione Pizza left it disjointed in flavor, visually unappealing and not reflective of spring, if that’s the season they were aiming for.

But adornments for the ’Nduja Pizza did hit the mark: a spicy house-made ’nduja — a chile-infused, spreadable Italian pork sausage — with spinach, red pepper, red onion, cheddar and garlic oil.

The restaurant makes its own extruded pastas. It gets credit for freshness, but the pasta was overly thick, like the dense tubes of spinach garganelli (no longer on the menu) with a salty chicken ragu. The orecchiette, too. Spicy sausage lent that latter plate a nice kick, but the plop of Grana Padano foam on top tasted and looked amateurish. Add to that a confounding crumble of Marcona almonds, which did not deliver satisfaction in the way that a sprinkling of those same nuts brought harmony to a shareable plate of roasted cauliflower over a swath of mint-flecked yogurt. (Aside: When I think Marcona almonds, I think Spain, not Italy. More on that later.)

Spring flavors of peas, asparagus and dandelions greens did not lighten up heavy ribbons of mafalde. Meyer lemon might have brightened this pasta offering, but the citrus was present in such excess that it became a taste bud distraction.

So, where to when pizza and pasta don’t satisfy? The upper half of the menu is devoted to small plates whose ingredients and flavors seem more broadly Mediterranean than Italian in focus.

When I inquired about the octopus, the server replied that it was “Spanish style.” The generous portion of long tentacles showed a nice char, the seafood was toothsome not rubbery and the presentation elegant with a collection of escarole, chickpeas, pickled red onions and a roasted pepper emulsion.

I don’t place lamb chops with saffron cauliflower, pistachio yogurt, mint and pomegranate in Italy. And pomegranate seemed an odd choice for a meal in May, but my real gripes with this dish: No one asked how we wished the lamb to be prepared (It arrived medium.), the puddle of pink pomegranate jus looked sloppy and the cauliflower was barely browned.

That’s not to say that some flavors at Double Zero are not good. Or that ingredients are not fresh. On the contrary.

Thick-stemmed asparagus was surprisingly tender. Its bright green hue contrasted beautifully with the white drizzle of truffle yogurt and orange-tinged piperade (a dish of sauteed peppers and tomatoes with origins in Spain’s Basque region).

Eggplant caponata was delightfully garlicky, briny olives bringing the spread to life. Accompanied with ample bread wedges, it’s an excellent app for the table.

The arancini might well be the best I’ve tasted in the South. It is also arancini of the American South. The balls are more meaty than rice-y, laden with smoky, barbecued brisket. Those balls were fried to a perfect golden brown, the insides wonderfully moist with melted cheddar and topped with an exacting dab of exquisite sweet honey truffle aioli.

Less exacting were the globs of whipped cream spilling out between the biscuit halves of strawberry-basil shortcake that made the whole thing look like a rushed job. A pudding of butterscotch-flavored budino was cloyingly sweet and not worth the sugar rush.

Double Zero gives a worthwhile rush with its drinks. The green-hued, full-bodied Stregasaurus with Italian liqueur Strega and muddled basil was refreshing and delicious. Ginger notes lingered pleasantly in the boozier Scotch-based Referendum. And it was nice to see an amaro get called into action with this drink, a cocktail that felt far more comfortable on this menu than the Crazy 88, whose Japanese whiskey Iwai and Japanese chili bitters seem like they would be more at home at a sushi joint.

Wine lovers will be at home at Double Zero. The list is interesting (12 of the 34 are from Italy) and broad in appeal. All are available by the glass, with reasonable picks to be had for between $10 and $13.

The crowds seem to indicate that Double Zero has found receptive takers at its new home, but an energetic space and solid service — the waitstaff is capable and professional, yet with a friendly manner that keeps the mood comfortably casual — aren’t enough to make it a destination. That is, unless arancini is what you’re after.

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