Q&A with Riccardo Ullio on Escorpion

ATL Food Chatter: June 14, 2011
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Riccardo Ullio deserves credit for his resilience. After last spring’s closing of his two Juniper Street ventures—the Spanish-themed Cuerno, which was revamped toward the end as Lupe Taqueria, and the Brazilian cocktail lounge Beleza—the owner of Inman Park’s Sotto Sotto and Fritti is back on the Midtown restaurant scene with Escorpion. The restaurant resides at 5th and Peachtree, where Eno long lived and 5th Street Cafe recently flamed out in less than three months. Esporpion is a “tequila bar and cantina” featuring cocktails inspired by indigenous Mexican ingredients and a friendly menu that includes ceviches, familiar appetizers (guac, queso fundito), tacos that you can order individually or by plates of four, and a few entrees such as Spring Mountain chicken with red mole and grapefruit segments. Ullio fills us in on the restaurant’s origin and direction:
Q: After the location challenges you faced with Cuerno/Lupe and Beleza a few blocks away, what factors encouraged you to open another restaurant in Midtown?
RU: The thing that most people don’t realize about the Beleza /Lupe location is that we were actually making a small profit when we closed in May of last year. When we were switching out the concept from Cuerno to Lupe we missed three mortgage payments to the bank due to cash shortages. After missing the payments, we began making them again, but the bank refused to work with us and we could not keep them from foreclosing. As far as the location is concerned, the new location is far superior to the Juniper one: Peachtree is a major artery, it is a two-way street, it has outdoor dining and plenty of parking. All the former were missing from the Juniper location.

Q: Until a few years ago, you focused solely on Italian cuisine, and now you seem to be having a romance with Mexican cuisine. What inspired the interest?
RU: I always liked Mexican cuisine, and I have researched regional cuisine extensively while traveling in Mexico. George Rhoerig, the landlord at 800 Peachtree Street, was a huge fan of Lupe. He contacted me and asked me to open a Mexican concept there because he lives across the street and felt that it would do really well there. An Italian concept would not have been a good idea because Baraonda is the next block over and we would have split the clientele needlessly. So we decided to do another Mexican concept. I think you could say it is an arranged marriage as much as a romance.

Q: Are there some ideas/dishes from Lupe that you found successful that you’ve carried over here?
RU: We brought back Maria Palma, the sous chef from Lupe. She has a treasure trove of family recipes and is responsible for the traditional sauces and dishes—moles, tamales, lengua [tongue] tacos, etc.

Q: Your drink menu looks to have as much care put into it as the food menu: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind it? Also, I notice there are no variations for a margarita on the drink menu: Is the restaurant taking a purist stance on margaritas?
RU: The credit there goes to mixologists Adam Fox and Gilbert Marquez. Escorpion is a tequila bar/cantina, thus Adam had the idea to have a cocktail menu that is entirely based on agave. He and Gilbert use agave-based spirits (tequila, mezcal, and sotol) as the base for a wide range of cocktails: sours, punches, seasonal cocktails, fizzes, champagne cocktails, and stirred drinks. All the drinks on the Sours and Daisies [a cocktail that includes citrus and sugar and dates back to the 1860s] and Agave al Tiempo sections of our drink menu could be called margaritas. We call them by different names because technically a margarita is a tequila daisy: spirit, orange liquor, and sour.
As far as purist stance, Gilbert, a member of the Yaqui tribe and an agave guru, thinks that the only way to drink agave spirits is neat, in a glass or terracotta cup. So much for purist margaritas…

(Ullio photo credit: Lou Freeman)
During the Great American Bake Sale’s National Challenge Weekend on May 13-15, 2011, bloggers from across the country competed against each other to raise the most money to benefit Share Our Strength. A group of nearly 30 bloggers from Atlanta, led by Tami Hardeman of Running with Tweezers, raised $3,100 at their bake sale and will receive a $10,000 donation to Share Our Strength from Duncan Hines on her team’s behalf.

Slow Food Atlanta is sponsoring its fifth annual Ice Cream Social, a contest and fundraiser held concurrently with the Peachtree Road Farmers Market on Saturday, June 18 from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. at St. Philip’s Cathedral (2744 Peachtree Road). The contestants will include local chefs and non-professionals.

The AJC reported that Yae Nakato, co-founder of Nakato Japanese Restaurant , died last week at age 96.

Buckhead. Look for the Pie Shop—formerly an online operation featuring flavors such as lemon meringue, blueberry rhubarb and watermelon chiffon with macadamia cookie crust—to open a brick and mortar store on Wednesday, June 15 at 3210 Roswell Road.

Decatur. The folks at Cakes & Ale posted on their blog that they are targeting a mid-July opening for their new and highly anticipated move to Decatur Square.

Edgewood Retail District. Morelli’s Ice Cream is officially opening its second location at 1221 Caroline Street this Saturday, June 18, with free ice cream for the first two hours. It opens at noon.
Lithonia. The AJC’s Jenny Turknett reported that Collard Green Cafe, formerly located at I-85 and Shallowford Road in Atlanta, has relocated to 7245 Rockbridge Road. The restaurant will continue to serve Southern fare and will now feature live jazz on Friday nights.

Midtown. What Now Atlanta first reported that Cafe Intermezzo’s fifth location will be in the 1010 Condominiums and is scheduled for an April 2012 opening. The Midtown store will be modeled on the Dunwoody location of the European-themed coffee house.

Kessler broke the news yesterday that Dogwood Restaurant is closing after today.
Poncey Highland. The AJC’s Gene Lee reports that Hector Santiago has revived his popular El Burro Pollo concept except it is now indoors-in the Super Pan location, down stairs from Pura Vida. El Burro is open on Saturdays only from noon until 3pm and ,in addition to the previous burritos only menu, now serves Santiago’s take on pizza.

And it seems that Pura Vida will also be getting some added firepower to their bar. Besha Rodell reports that Sound Table master mixologist Paul Calvert will join Santiago’s team on June 20.

Roswell. Roswell Tap, a casual food and tavern located in the former home of Roswell King, the founder of the city of Roswell, is slated to open this week at 1090 Alpharetta Road, according to Thrillist.

Chatter on 285 Foodies indicates that the owners of Salt and Inc. are planning to open Little Alley Steakhouse at 950 Canton Street sometimes this fall.

Vinings. Tomorrow’s News Today reports that Cami Cupcakes is taking the former Sweet Pockets location and is planning a mid-July opening.

Question of the Week: What ATL burger joint received some serious love from Serious Eats in a recent review?

PS. The answer to last week’s QOTW-What Buckhead resto is rumored to be adding a pizza joint as part of its expansion plans?- is La Fourchette, according to a conversation Foodie Buddha had with employees.