Restaurant Review - Does STG Trattoria meet its lofty expectations?
Brian Lewis' Italian concept is a trattoria in progressMonday July 2, 2012 04:00 am EDT
When I first heard about STG Trattoria, it was like a late-night infomercial calling out an irresistible product: Amaro cocktails! Wood-fired Neapolitan pizza! Rock-star chef Josh Hopkins from Abattoir! House-made pasta! But wait, that's not all ... wouldn't you like some good Italian wine at retail price? In the heart of Buckhead? (Truthfully, they had me at "amaro.")
Yes, like most infomercial miracle products, STG sounds a bit too good to be true. But STG has the credentials to back up the hype — not only executive chef Hopkins, but also chef de cuisine Adam Waller from Sotto Sotto, mixologist David Durnell from Bocado, and restaurateur Brian Lewis as head hawker. With this kind of talent, STG should be able to rival the success of any late-night Thighmaster knockoff or George Foreman grill.
Well, after three months, STG seems a bit too similar to an infomercial product that ends up being a little less than you expected: a case of "your results may vary." Moments worth shouting about, from bold flavor combinations on the pizzas to clever Italian spins on local produce, are weighed down by disappointments that stack up over time.
Let's start with drinks, which are indeed a great way to start a meal at STG. First, you have to navigate an iPad-based drink menu, which may sound fun and informative, but ends up being bothersome as you click back and forth through layers of sub-menus.
What's more unique than the techno-bling is the list of amaro cocktails — built on Italian aperitifs, low on alcohol and high on flavor, equally well-suited to get your appetite going or cool you down. An Aperol Orange Soda expertly blends bracing bitterness and bright citrus acidity, and the My Amaro Cola should render obsolete any thoughts of Jack and Coke. But execution is sometimes an issue — a Barolo Ginger Soda that's fantastically sharp and complex one day turns out flat and lifeless on another visit, which seems like an impossible flaw given such powerful ingredients (spice-heavy Barolo Chinato, grapefruit bitters, and ginger ale).
The Italy-centric wine list offers a decent array that spans in diversity, but the by-the-glass options are limited, and the staff needs to spend more time getting to know what's what. The pricing is nice compared to most restaurants, but doesn't come close to the promised land of "retail pricing," especially on wines by the glass that clock in at one-third of the bottle prices (a pleasant $9 glass of Barbera could be had by the bottle for $27). It's a case of overpromising rather than overdelivering.
Now, imagine the magic made in an Italian Acunto wood-fired oven ... Whether out of the oven or from the kitchen, hits and misses fly out with equal aplomb. A brilliantly bitter and aggressively seasoned sausage and rapini pizza hits the bull's-eye. Another, a salt-bomb of a pizza with super-strength anchovies and olives, screams out for balance. Both, though, exhibit a deft touch with the dough and achieve that just-right amount of char that adds an exclamation point of crisp character. Meanwhile, encounters with the calzone are either a bold step forward or sloppy step back. One visit produced a crunchy-around-the-edges calzone full of fatty meatball goodness in the warm embrace of house-made mozzarella and ricotta. A second sampling gave way to a simply soggy calzone full of messy pomodorini.
The most surprising triumphs, ones that didn't feature prominently in STG's initial sales pitch, show the kitchen's thoughtful approach to the interplay of local produce and the flavors one might find in a trattoria in Italy. A small plate of fava beans and lady peas, for example, plays off those firm bites of bright green and yellow with a lively vinaigrette flecked with mint and slivered onion. A pile of shaved pecorino perched on top for an earthy counterpoint. Elsewhere, chunks of Georgia peach spill over Gorgonzola on a crunchy toasted bruschetta, topped off with arugula and aged balsamic for a bittersweet swirl of flavor. Then there's an achingly good cold summer squash soup with fennel that blends in ricotta instead of cream to reach a more nuanced richness, equal parts fresh and zingy. It's a shame the salads at lunchtime can't reach the same heights as this soup, as they suffer from too delicate a hand with the dressing, especially the romaine salad that needs a good bit more of everything but romaine.
Pastas, too, are sometimes right, sometimes wrong. All is right (if a bit out of season) in a rich tussle of pulled duck and trumpet mushrooms with tender, buttery gnocchi, all tied together with bright vinegar acidity. But then a summery bowl of spinach tortelloni swims in a bland pool of brodo, with too little filling or flavor inside the (nicely al dente) pasta pouches to keep it afloat.
If the service were impeccable, maybe it would make up for the misses. Alas, numerous lapses in timing of dishes being delivered and in knowledge of the menu just add to the sense that something is amiss.
While STG fills a hole in Buckhead's see-and-be-eating scene, it remains a trattoria in evolution. Maybe it's for the better that lunch crowds have yet to materialize (mine was the lone table one midday as the Sound of Silence played in the background), as Lewis freely admits that the kitchen continues to push and prod on the menu and approach. I've seen enough since that very first glimpse of things to come at STG that my excitement remains, tempered by the reality that very good restaurants are rarely very good right away. Someday, hopefully, the results might match the expectations.