Announcing the next big culinary trend: Southern chefs embracing the cuisines of Italy. Yes! It’s officially a thing. And it isn’t such a wacky stretch, really. The two cultures share deep agrarian roots, and their most rewarding foods stem from humble origins and a mutual love of pork and vegetables. Italy produces prosciutto; Southerners age country hams. The restaurants of the Boot display platters of antipasto salads glistening with olive oil; we showcase our produce in abundant bowls of buttery side dishes. Obviously the correlations don’t extend forever: Their cooks used the flour from their wheat-producing regions to perfect pasta and pizza, while we clung to our British influence and mastered biscuits. But the parallels hold up, and the intermingling proves gratifying.
Locavore chefs like Billy Allin and Steven Satterfield freely incorporate Italian flavors in their menus. At Allin’s Cakes & Ale in Decatur, gnocchi and burrata (the cream-filled mozzarella) are as much menu staples as North Carolina trout and fried okra. At Miller Union, Satterfield often pairs homemade pasta with local vegetables—ravioli filled with beets and sunchokes, for example. Other Southern toques are opening Italian restaurants outright. Later this spring, Hugh Acheson of Empire State South and Athens’s Five & Ten will launch the Florence in Savannah, which will serve local seafood and pizzas baked in a wood-fired oven. “There’s a definite kinship between beautifully sourced Southern food and the way Italians have cooked for years,” Acheson told Atlanta magazine last April. “There’s a reverence for simplicity on both sides.”
Ryan Pernice and Ted Lahey hatched a similar idea. The partners of Southern smash hit Table & Main wanted to build on their success with a second restaurant along Canton Street, Roswell’s chockablock dining thoroughfare. Pernice, who grew up in Roswell, noticed the area lacked Italian options. He’d previously worked in Manhattan at Maialino, a trattoria run by superstar restaurateur Danny Meyer. Lahey, Table & Main’s executive chef (who cooked under Acheson when he arrived in Georgia), was equally game to tackle an Italian concept. The two power-chowed through New York’s finest ristorantes, and then tore through Rome, Naples, Bologna, and Montepulciano, gobbling thirty-one meals in eight days.
Once they shook off their food comas, the binge helped clarify the vision for their new place—an American version of an osteria, which in Italy is more akin to a tavern or a pub. Like Table & Main, Osteria Mattone (which opened in November) resides in a renovated house on the calmer end of Canton Street. The owners divided the space in two, dedicating the left side to a bar—showcasing folksy, light-filled paintings by local artist Bill Lovett—and a casual dining room where the tables aren’t reserved. The right side of the dining room is airier and more formal, and you can make reservations for this area. Twice I arrived around 6:30 p.m. without reservations, and I was seated almost immediately. But had I strolled in even twenty minutes later, I would have been looking at an hour’s wait, minimum. Customers cram the place nightly. The frazzled valets already look like they need vacations, or therapy.
I see a resemblance in the menus from Lahey’s two kitchens, both in a playfulness with ingredients and in a fondness for acidic pop in his cooking: At Table & Main you’ll find spunky meatloaf meatballs with brown sugar ketchup, and roasted grouper sparked with preserved lemon. At Osteria Mattone, braised veal meatballs bob in a balanced tomato sauce, and eggplant caponata adds a smart vinegary thwack to a steaky hunk of swordfish. Table & Main began as a solid Southern farm-to-table entrant and has since blossomed into one of Roswell’s best restaurants. I trust Mattone (which means brick in Italian, in a nod to the building’s exposed walls) is moving in the same direction. Not every dish wows so far, but the execution is sound and there’s enough finesse, particularly among the pastas, to keep the crowds coming.
Pernice brought in one secret weapon that immediately elevates the experience: his sommelier brother, Dan. Ryan Pernice has grown out his dark hair since I last spied him at Table & Main, and he and Dan, both lanky and bearded, look nearly identical. If I were casting PBS’s next Masterpiece Mystery! franchise portraying Sherlock Holmes and his sibling, Mycroft, I’d hire these two on sight. Which is not to say that Dan comes across as aloof in his approach to wine service. In warm, gentle tones, he’ll navigate you with equal enthusiasm toward an $11 glass of crisp, apple-scented Falanghina from Campania, or to a $64 bottle of 2011 Pecchenino Dolcetto di Dogliani from Piedmont, a heady red full of silky raspberry notes. I asked him if it was difficult to encourage diners to drink Italian wines. He shook his head and said, “I’m having a hard time selling the varietals from other growing regions.”
His selections tend to accommodate a broad range of flavors, important given the breadth of the menu. No one region of Italy pulls focus, though some of Rome’s signature dishes stand out: lilting poached artichoke hearts accented only with lemon; pizzas with crusts more akin to flatbread than the Neapolitan style of plush dough (try the variation with speck ham and arugula); a soothing bowl of spaghetti carbonara; and a feistier bucatini all’Amatriciana, a hollow noodle tossed in a sauce pungent with guanciale (cured hog jowl), fierce Calabrian chiles, and pecorino. The real showcase for pecorino, a sheep’s milk cheese with a pleasantly barnyardy funk, is another Roman specialty, cacio e pepe—tonnarelli (a hand-cut, squared version of spaghetti) tossed with lots of pecorino and black pepper.
Round out those enchantments with heartier classics, like risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella or soul-satisfying lasagna Bolognese. The entrees are the least compelling efforts: Lean toward seafood options like the swordfish or branzino roasted in the wood-burning oven. Steer clear of the fatty porchetta (pork shoulder) that lacks the crackly skin so needed in this preparation.
Keep the carb fest rolling come dessert time. The hits include ricotta fritters, polenta pound cake glazed with citrus, and finest of all, budino carmelatto, a square of salted caramel bread pudding. Each hails from Italy, but they’re also sweet comforts that any Southerner would recognize—and love.
Rating: 2/4 stars (very good)
1095 Canton Street, Roswell
Hours: Tuesday–Thursday 5–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5–10:30 p.m., Sunday 5–9:30 p.m.