Hits and misses among cozy Italian fare at Crispina


Crispina Ristorante & Pizzeria

3300 Cobb Parkway S.E., Atlanta

Years ago, I took a broken heart and a backpack to Italy and spent a couple of weeks trundling around the boot with a pal. Every night, we ate in a different trattoria, but every night our orders were exactly the same — at least when it came to the primi. He got spaghetti with pesto. And me? Tagliatelle ai funghi.

Had I been happier, I probably would have gravitated toward a zippier dish. But, when eggy pasta ribbons are coated with just the right balance of butter, cream and cheese, and they’re generously dotted with mushrooms that have been sautéed until silken, that tagliatelle is as good as a quilt laid over you by your mama. It comforts you until you’re back on your feet.

A love-stitched quilt is hard to make and so is a good mushroom tagliatelle. These days, it’s my go-to Italian restaurant barometer. When it’s done very well, it fills me with voluptuous bittersweetness — and great affection for the chef who made it, even if some of his or her other dishes pale in comparison.

As luck would have it, when I ate at Crispina Ristorante & Pizzeria, the creamy mushroom pasta — romantically named Tagliatelle Alla Raffaele — was the best thing I had. The pasta ribbons were thin and delicate, the sauce was both luxurious and light, and the mushrooms were plentiful and perfectly cooked.

It must be said that some of Crispina’s other dishes did pale in comparison. But, first, let’s talk about the reasons you’ll like this place, especially if you live nearby in Vinings.

There’s an enveloping coziness to Crispina, despite the fact that it lives in a shopping center around the corner from a Kroger. There’s a blazing brick oven that you can see from the door, long swagging curtains along a wall of windows, and dim, begging-for-candles lighting.

And then there is the staff — so intent on your happiness that they’ll go to great lengths to insure it.

The food is largely cozy, too. And when it comes to that aromatic tagliatelle or the rustically misshapen fried calzone, filled with melty dollops of fresh ricotta and sweet, fresh tomato sauce, cozy is a good thing.

But, other times, cozy puts you to sleep. That was the case with the massive, tepid bowl of pasta e fagioli alla torrese soup. It’s a very mild broth, scattered with beans, some too-toothsome pasta strips and small shelled mussels that were fine, but in no way special.

Spooning up pre-shelled mollusks is less satisfying than fishing ink-colored shells out of your soup and digging out the sweet meat yourself. When the visceral pleasure of the catch is gone, it turns out the flavor might be a bit anesthetized, too.

Or maybe the soup just needed salt.

That was an issue I kept returning to during my Crispina meal. Of the very bland panzarotti appetizer, a fluffy mashed potato fritter: This needs salt. Of the decent but slightly floppy pizza crust: This needs salt (though the very good cheese and fruity sauce on our Regina Margherita pie made up for it).

If it wasn’t salt that was lacking, it was bold flavor. Take the salami lurking inside our toto calzone. I knew the narrow strips were there — I could see them. But the spicy, tongue-tingling zing salami should add was absent.

In a few other dishes, such as the pappardelle Antonio, featuring little slabs of mild, homemade sausage, I found myself straining to find an extra bump in flavor. The pappardelle dish was also comprised of lovely homemade pasta and tasty rapini. Had its sausage component had more kick, it would have elevated this dish from pretty good to very good.

Then again, I should be careful what I wish for. The Porterhouse pork chop was packed with flavor — but none of it welcome. The chop was blanketed in a thick, jammy, balsamic glaze dotted with chopped walnuts. Put a slick, tart topping and softly crunchy nuts on top of a thick and hardy piece of meat and you get a tremendously unappetizing combination of textures.

Texture was also a problem in the massive drift of “polenta” that accompanied the chop. It was strangely grainy, and the fact that it completely lacked flavor didn’t help matters.

On top of all those problems, our particular chop was detectably singed and the meat smelled funky.

It was the last bit that caused a flurry of mea culpas from Crispina’s owner when we informed him that the meat had been mealy and off-smelling. He refunded the cost of the dish and sent over a free dessert, which my kid companions ate but I declined. (The light and fluffy, not-too-sweet ricotta cheesecake that I paid for, however, was delicious.)

The owner even went so far as to find the phone number on my pseudonymous reservation and call the next day to inform me that he was finding a new meat purveyor.

It’s passion like this, plus very-close-to-great pizzas, calzones and pastas, that earn my respect. This is a restaurant that cares, that works to right its wrongs.

And one that knows the healing power of a really nice mushroom tagliatelle.



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