- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
On a recent Saturday night at the Old Fourth Ward’s newest Italian restaurant, A Mano, you could see paper lanterns in the distance. Somewhere past where we could see, there were thousands of glowing lights floating through the dark, colorful and whimsical creations carried by participants in the Atlanta Beltline Lantern Parade. But here on the corner of Ralph McGill and Glen Iris, the dim residential sidewalks bobbed with a few lanterns here, a few lanterns there. Some drifted over to parked cars, others floated along right to the well-lit patio and porch of this restaurant, like moths drawn in by a flame.
They had good reason to visit. The building where A Mano opened this summer was once ground zero for the Lantern Parade, a place to make and distribute lanterns for a then-budding annual tradition. These days, the parade is one of the defining annual events for the neighborhoods bordering the Beltline, and A Mano is something like that parade once was: warm and inviting, friendly and colorful, still figuring things out.
The menu served here is what you might loosely call “modern Italian.” The culinary influence is global rather than regional. Some veggies are noted as being plucked from local farms. The pastas are handmade, thus the restaurant’s name, which translates to “by hand.” Many plates are composed with an eye to color and balance suitable for Instagram.
When chef Chandler Cottingham hits his note, the results can be pretty great. A dish of charred octopus served over an herby salad of potatoes, fennel and supreme-cut citrus strikes a complex harmony of warm and cool, salty and sweet, crunchy and soft. It leaves your mouth humming with the subtle slow burn of a hot pepper hidden somewhere within.
Many of the plates boast a touch or element that shows a kitchen striving to deliver something distinct: An obligatory mixed salad comes scattered with grains of farro as crisp and crunchy as the ideal breadcrumbs. A side of roast cauliflower gets an addictive, not-too-sweet punch from raisin agrodolce.
The best thing A Mano has going for it, though, is simply the restaurant itself. Though owner George DeMeglio clearly went through some time and expense in renovation — he announced his plans for an Italian restaurant in this location three years ago — there is nothing that feels forced, overdone or fussy about the space. From the lantern-lit picnic tables along the Ralph McGill sidewalk to the staircase leading to the patio to the warm, wood-planked interior to the affable, attentive staff, this is unmistakably a neighborhood restaurant. It still feels like what it is: a house on a residential block, a place where you can pop in for a glass of wine with the same ease and comfort as knocking on a friendly neighbor’s door.
Speaking of drinks, A Mano is a fine place for them. The bar staff turns out tasty concoctions, including a salty-sweet combo of tequila, Aperol and grapefruit juice they call T.A.G., with the same ease as stirring a flawless Negroni. The list of wine by the glass is short, well-chosen, and mostly under $10 bucks a glass. The draft list is dominated by local craft brews, but they’ll even sell you a can of PBR if you’re dropping in for a cheap drink. And if you want to drop in late, they keep pouring until midnight most nights of the week.
As for dinner, the ambitions of the kitchen can sometimes seem to be aimed at a higher level than the finished product. Mostly this is just a matter of the kind of nitpicky little details that are easily fixed. One night, the insalata mixta had a distracting imbalance of thick-cut raw red onions. The plate had only been cleared for a short while before a dish of shishito peppers arrived piled with another load of raw red onions. Another night, a bowl of fried potatoes was overwhelmed by an admittedly quite pretty pile of chopped dill only to be followed by an entree of porchetta piled with (what else?) a big pile of dill. The menu gave no mention of red onions with either the salad or the peppers. Ditto for the dill on the potatoes and porchetta. I say that because I wish a server had mentioned it to me.
Clearly, Cottingham is a chef that gets the pleasure of variation within a theme. The two most impressive touches on the menu are clever variations on a vegetable within a single pasta dish. A creamy bed of fusilli, diver scallops and mushrooms gets hit with chard two ways: wilted, savory leaves folded among the pasta and pickled, crunchy stems scattered on top. The acidic punch of those stems was such a pleasant pair to the earthy leaves that I didn’t even mind much that the plate was a bit over-salted.
The most beautiful pasta on the menu is also the most impressively complex. Butter-drenched ravioli stuffed with pureed carrots and ricotta are topped with raw ribbons of carrot sliced mandoline-thin and browned ribbons cooked potato-chip crisp. This carrot three-ways trick deserves to be eaten slowly and with concentration. I had to pause the dinner conversation I was having because the trio of contrasting textures demanded my full attention. Of course, the drenching of butter and Parmesan virtually guarantees you won’t move too quickly through such a rich dish.
There are a few more familiar options, as well. Bucatini alla Bolognese is a solid fastball down the middle: a rich, spicy, meaty and satisfying red sauce pasta topped with a crumbly, peppered quenelle of ricotta. That, and a glass of the house red, is the sort of “treat yourself to dinner at the bar” comfort food that anyone should be happy to have in their neighborhood.
It is this sort of ambition and general quality that convinces me that A Mano will sort out those minor flaws sooner rather than later. Like the Lantern Parade that once called this building home, A Mano is still a work in progress, but one that I would gladly be neighbors with.