Avellino’s Pizzeria is a neighborhood joint, through and through. Both of them, in fact. One location overlooks the railroad tracks in Decatur. The other, in the Brookhaven area, is plunked between a dry cleaner and a scrubby empty field. Both are tiny holes in the wall, usually with a crowd at the door and plenty of inviting outdoor seating.
But, in ways subtle and not, these two Avellino’s are different.
“The one in Decatur is more New York-style,” said Mitch Frohman, front-of-the-house manager at the Brookhaven location. At the Decatur location, they cook on stone in a gas deck oven, he said. “Here in Brookhaven, we have a wood-burning oven shipped from Italy.”
In other words, this mini-chain gives its locals what they want. And, in Brookhaven, apparently, what they want is an unapologetic combo of haute, delicate 12-inch pies strewn with arugula, fior di latte and pancetta as well as greasy, cheesy goodies straight out of the deep fryer.
The first oily app we opted for on a sunny Sunday evening was the arancini — balls of creamy, toothsome rice studded with pancetta bits and amply breaded. They came in a pool of marinara and they were crispy and rich. An upgrade on fried mozzarella sticks.
But, then, on table after table on the patio (where we sat because we couldn’t resist all the sunburst-orange umbrellas and the comfortable backyard party vibe) we spotted something mysterious and intriguing.
“What,” I asked one of the cheerful, casual servers, “is that?”
“Oh,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “It’s the garlic cheese bread. It’s by far the most popular appetizer here.”
The crusty, fluffy, oil-rich bread is stuffed with gooey, oregano-flecked mozzarella, then sliced and splayed along the edges of a round platter. The spiny, crescent loaf looks remarkably like a whole, fried fish and, in yet another miracle, is ridiculously delicious. Drizzled with a garlic-thick sauce and served with a cup of fruity marinara for dunking, it’s lick-your-fingers decadent, super fun, and the most flavorful thing we ate all night.
Which is another way of saying the pizza at Avellino’s is very fine, but not mind-blowingly good. The crust is thin and nicely charred by that wood fire. It’s also a little dry and lacks that salty, sweet, yeasty, chewy suppleness that makes pizza crust truly special.
Toppings are also good, but not great. On our red-sauced quattro stagioni, the artichokes were more leaf than heart, and smoked pancetta tasted more like crisped breakfast bacon. Combined with kalamata olives and cremini mushrooms, there was plenty of flavor, and a nice intersection of textures. But, the toppers didn’t have that high-quality sumptuousness that makes you say, “Wow.”
Similarly, on our white ricotta and salsiccia pizza, piped whorls of ricotta had a lovely, garlicky creaminess. The hard nubbins of Italian sausage? Not as lovely.
If you compare these Neapolitans with some of Atlanta’s more celebrated versions, they fall short. But, for a convenient neighborhood joint, Brookhaven’s Avellino’s is a respectable and reliable draw — as much an easy, happy gathering spot with plenty of beer and wine as it is a dining experience.
Measuring with this same bar, I can recommend the spaghetti and meatballs. The sauce is a little chunky and strikes a nice balance between sweetness and acidity. The pasta is cozily thick and a perfect al dente. The meatballs — though tightly packed enough to give them a rubbery quality — are also packed with savory flavor.
I also can give a thumbs-up to the melanzana panini, despite the puzzling fact that its bread is a folded pita with a slim channel of melted mozzarella in its crease. Stuffed with thin, crisp slices of eggplant, this is a wafer of a sandwich, not a luxurious double handful. With its shredded basil and more of that fruity marinara for lubrication, it’s a nice, light dish.
There are a couple of items I’d steer away from — a romaine-free Caesar salad with thick, gummy dressing served on the side, and a heavy platter of cheese tortellini.
But, the truth is, Avellino’s is a place full of neighborhood regulars. They surely have learned to opt for one of the lighter, springier pastas. They no doubt insist on ordering that fish-shaped cheesy garlic bread every time. And they see the pizzas for what they are — creative and tasty enough to be worthy of regular rotation, even if they’re not top-of-the-line.
Plus, the regulars know that this is a joint that was shaped just for their own locale. In a dining landscape where even small chains can be a bit too efficiently generic, that’s as pleasing as great food.
4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays, 4-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 1328 Windsor Parkway N.E., Atlanta. 404-500-3841, avellinospizzeria.com/avellinosbrookhaven.