Review: Osteria di Mare plays it safe with Italian seafood and steaks

What compels you to choose a restaurant? Are you more likely to go for that shining temple of gastronomy on a hill, or that neighborhood gem down the street?

If you fall in the latter category, you may want to know about Osteria di Mare in Peachtree Corners.

A little less than a mile north of Jay Swift’s posh Noble Fin (“Seafood Steaks Cocktails”) sits Andrew Hoppen’s Osteria di Mare (“Fine Italian Steaks and Seafood”).

Quietly beckoning from the corner of a sturdy red-brick shopping center on Peachtree Parkway, Osteria is the sister restaurant of Hoppen’s almost-5-year-old taco joint nearby.  While Taqueria del Mar serves all day in a casual atmosphere, Hoppen’s newest venture is a white-tablecloth, dinner-only, fine-dining experience with a rather pricey menu of Italian seafood dishes, steaks and a wine list to match.

Hoppen, a Miami native and ocean lover, has a background in produce and seafood sales, gourmet markets and retail. In the early 2000s, he was a co-owner of the late Market One at the corner of Ponce de Leon and North Highland avenues. Later, he worked with Alisa Barry at Bella Cucina and as general manager of Alon’s Bakery & Market in Dunwoody.

Today, Osteria is his vision, through and through. After taking over the lease, he renovated the place himself, wrote the original menu and considered doing the cooking. But as the single father of two young daughters and the owner of another restaurant, he realized he might be getting in over his head. So he hired a chef, Byron Harrel, a guy with an extensive background at high-end resorts and hotels.

Together, they do it old school.

At Osteria, you’ll find classics that have anchored the Italian-American repertoire for generations — a menu peppered with words like piccata, Parmigiana, Alfredo, and Bolognese. There’s hardly a contemporary dish in sight, and virtually every entree is paired with potatoes, polenta, pasta or risotto. Good old-fashioned carbs, baby.

Though Harrel is a highly competent chef and Hoppen takes pride in sourcing quality ingredients, the details often feel like a return to the 1990s. Scoops of sorbet arrive in a martini glass. Roasted asparagus and haricots verts appear at every turn. Mussels are steamed in a broth with lemongrass. (Say what? At an Italian restaurant?) And does the world really need more creme brulee and tiramisu?

My Osteria experience may be the only time in my life I’ve heard a server refer to a bowl of marinated olives and a bread basket as an amuse-bouche. But she did, and there it was: warm, crispy lavash and sliced focaccia, so good slathered with herb butter, chased by a sip of Adelsheim Vineyard Pinot Noir.

At the suggestion of the same server, we sampled the arancini, the rice fritters that seem to be everywhere these days. Osteria’s risotto balls are packed with mozzarella and mushrooms and plated with a bit of charry tomato puree and a sprinkle of shaved pecorino. They were a bit on the dainty side, could have used a little more sauce, but a respectable and flavorful effort.

One could quibble with the fried calamari, served on a bed of greens and tossed with a white wine-pepperoncini reduction. Sure, some of the breading falls off in the twirl, but I liked the gently acidic tang of the dressing, the texture of crunchy squid on springy greens.

If you are in the mood for a proper salad, you may order a classic Caesar; beets with ricotta and spicy marconas; or straightforward tosses like the bambino insalata rucola or the verdi del bambino. The baby talk is simply a reference to the size of the lettuce. We opted for the verdi del bambino: baby greens with blistered (and a tad watery) cherry tomatoes, cucumber and shaved ricotta salata.

Hoppen takes pride in the house-made pastas extruded from an Italian machine he bought secondhand. Harrel pairs the lasagna and spaghettini with sauces that are rich and decadent, sending them out as jumbo-size portions, as if daring you to finish them.

Lobster carbonara, fettuccine coated in a velvety sauce of cheese and egg with green peas and a touch of salty prosciutto, was a bowl of luxury, though at $29, I might have expected a bit more lobster meat.

Rigatoni with Bolognese sauce was a textbook example of Old World cooking, a hearty ragu of veal, pork and beef, plus lots of cream and a touch of tomato. Just right, though I would recommend splitting either of these pasta bowls, or asking for a half portion.

Though seafood is Hoppen’s first love, he said he wanted to add turf to the surf because he feels the area lacks a “boutique steakhouse.” After tasting the cowboy-cut veal chop, I’m glad he did.

Cooked to medium as requested, bathed in a deeply burnished, morel demi-glace and served with perfect tender-crispy potatoes and wonderfully bitter broccoli rabe, it was a memorable dish. Pure comfort. As well it should be, at $39.

So here’s the thing about Osteria: I’d be thrilled to have a place like this near my home. But for the money, you can find better pastas and steaks elsewhere. (See BoccaLupo in Inman Park, Kevin Rathbun’s KR SteakBar in Buckhead.)

And not to be overly picky, but referring to the vegetable in the lobster carbonara as “spring peas” might raise the eyebrows of the transparency police. And while the strawberry sorbet was lovely, it’s not exactly seasonal.

On both of my visits, the servers were friendly, helpful and, occasionally, hovering. “Sure you don’t want another glass of wine?” one staffer asked as our meal neared its end. (Indeed, we might — if we hadn’t already spent $162, including tip.)

Lucky for Peachtree Corners that Hoppen has tried to figure out what its dining scene lacks — and fill the void. The food at his Osteria is not terribly creative or ambitious, not worth driving across town for. But it is prepared with care and consistently delicious.

Osteria di Mare is not and probably never will be a destination restaurant. But after just three months, it already feels like a neighborhood classic.

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