In almost every town in Italy—and especially in the north—pasta fresca shops are as ubiquitous as butcher shops or greengrocers. But seldom do the pasta makers grow their own herbs, or source meat for the fillings from local farmers, or look for heirloom grains to add different flavors. Michael Patrick, the chef and founder of Storico Fresco, does.
Under Patrick’s direction, the doughs are handmade. The sauces are hand-stirred. The lasagna is layered carefully into each individual takeout baking dish. The tenderness and toothsomeness of the plain, fresh egg pasta dough makes it impossible not to grab a raw ricotta-and-herb-filled tortelloni and pop it into your mouth as a pillowy, if inadvisable (you’re not supposed to trust uncooked egg), snack. I’ve never seen anyone gather so many kinds of pasta and make them so well. Food lovers across the country would kill for a branch of Storico Fresco in their town. It’s like a pasta theme park.
So when Patrick opened a sit-down restaurant in a renovated Buckhead strip mall, next to the Trader Joe’s, I assumed this would be one of Atlanta’s—if not the country’s—most genuinely Italian restaurants. Patrick’s business partner, Pietro Gianni, is a suave Rome-born and Monte Carlo–raised engineer and construction site manager. Gianni is so detail-oriented in his new role as front-of-house manager that on the afternoon I made a reservation, he called twice about a request I’d entered on the website for a quiet table. (His family back in Italy also produces a mozzarella that the restaurant uses for many dishes.) The request turned out to be particularly important because the long tables are bare wood, family-style, and the walls bare plaster. It gets noisy fast when it gets crowded, and it’s been crowded since it opened in late May.
But while Storico Fresco is a brilliant store, it’s not much of a restaurant. I had two meals from the menu and two others that sampled from takeout cases, and almost every single dish from the brown paper packages and plastic containers was better than the ones on the restaurant menu. Lasagne with a classic Bolognese sauce made of pork, veal, beef, and milk, and a plush béchamel sauce, for instance, is thrilling right out of its rectangular plastic tray heated at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Chickpea and farro tagliolini, coated with a cheese-packed kale pesto that unfolds like single-malt scotch when stirred over the pasta, is a revelation. Ready-to-cook meals like these need little skill—or time—and make you feel like a pretty talented chef.
Yet the pasta dishes on the menu, which presumably should be even better, are unexpectedly lifeless. Squid ink chitarra, the wide, thick linguine traditionally cut using taut metal wire that looks like the string of a guitar, is served with calamari rings and turnip greens. But the greens are limp, the rings tough, and the salt out of whack—likely because the guanciale (pork jowl that is the basis of most Roman pasta sauces) has been cured by a local artisan with too heavy a salt hand.
Aside from the guanciale, which the restaurant goes through in bulk, all of the meats are imported from Italy, as are most of the ingredients for sale: olive oil, tuna in oil, dried pasta from a small factory Patrick found in the pasta-producing mecca of Gragnano, south of Naples. The prosciutto, the culatello (a prized long-cured version of pork leg), and the bresaola (air-dried beef) are all of noteworthy quality, comparable to what you’d find in a fussy salumeria in Italy, and worth buying in the prettily cut and packaged meat and cheese plates in the case. Yet the initial menu didn’t offer a meat tasting plate—in fact, most of what was in the cases was absent from the menu.
This would be understandable if the dishes on the menu were somehow more special than what’s in the cases. But they’re not. Salads are anonymous and lackluster. Antipasti that sound terrific are just okay. Callipo tuna, for example, an excellent brand of underbelly tuna, could have been an ideal small meal with white cannellini beans, olive oil, red onion, and parsley. But the tuna was cold and the beans hard capsules. Squash blossoms in light flour batter stuffed with mozzarella di bufala are cool, oily, and have little of the herbaceous and vegetal flavor you’d expect. The restaurant kitchen, unlike the production kitchen, has an erratic hand with seasoning. Aside from the guanciale, salt is more often absent than excessive, a welcome change from most kitchens. Peperoncino vinaigrette clobbers too-cold shaved zucchini rounds, arranged on the plate with (nearly unfindable) squash blossoms and fresh ricotta. A “gently spicy” tomato sauce with the non-squid-ink classic version of chitarra isn’t at all mild; the heat masks the sweetness and freshness of the house tomato sauce, which otherwise makes everything taste better.
Main courses are plain and a letdown after pastas, but they always are in Italy. Veal breast, a favorite Italian cut, is stuffed with pork sausage and served in a very plain jus; there are no fireworks, but it’s worth having for the quality of the meat. The most successful main I tried was scallop, gulf prawn, and expertly seared red snapper over swiss chard and comfort-food chickpea puree. The mix of seafood and the expertise of the saute, unusual for the spirit of the menu, hinted at what’s typical of professional restaurant kitchens rather than home ones, and made me think that the line cooks under Patrick’s supervision could be given a freer hand with the mains.
The desserts—a mixture of homey puddings like flan and small, brownie-like chocolate fondant tortinos—also betrayed a professional touch. The torched fresh figs with toasted walnut and vanilla gelato arrived pastry-chef pretty. Fanciest-looking and also best was a “floating island,” piped-out meringue torched to a marshmallowy crisp with a light vanilla sauce and fresh red berries.
When Pietro Gianni told me he came to Atlanta to open an outpost of the Eataly chain at Ponce City Market (the deal faltered and finally fell through), the idea of the restaurant clicked: a place that harnesses the engine of a production facility so high-powered it supplies more than two dozen restaurants and hotels (and Delta business class, if you please). The enthusiastic service and familial welcome, along with the customers popping in to order a half dozen casonsei or to sample white bean spread at the cash register, bring some of the happy semi-chaos of PCM, which of course has its own home-grown mini Eataly, Bellina Alimentari.
What will make Storico Fresco soar as high as the spectacular, mile-high timballo—a savory pie with a sweet-salt crust and stacked-high layers of cheese-filled tortelloni, a dish usually reserved for Christmas and special occasions—is to embrace the store and the cases and bring them to the tables. When I convinced a server to bring us a taste of the royal-looking timballo tempting us from the case, or to serve us a pleated, marvelously black-crusted individual burnt ricotta pie even though it wasn’t on the menu, I thought I was in Italy. Indeed, Patrick told me that the next version of the menu will offer many of the takeout dishes, including that burnt ricotta pie. I’ll hope for a wide selection of the imported cured meats and the several kinds of lasagna. And maybe, maybe the timballo. Now that will be worth pulling up a chair for.
Good to know
In Italian, storico fresco means “fresh history.” Michael Patrick traveled throughout Italy to research pasta-making methods and recipes.
3167 Peachtree Road,