Carino’s advertises itself to be “country Italian”. Exactly what that means is a mystery I never resolved while I was there. I walked in rather late, and ended up eating near the bar, with Carino’s bartender being my waitress. She was very good. Bartenders tend to be that, excellent in delivering service.

This Carino’s is next to Discovery Mills, on the northeast corner, and pretty much impossible to miss. When I entered, the restaurant was perhaps  half full and the plates of  food, what I could see of  them, were very large. I’m suspecting that’s what they mean by country Italian: we feed you like you’re a farmer in Italy.

As an appetizer I had a calamari dish. For an entree, I had a salmon dish that day, substituting vegetables for the angel hair pasta that normally would accompany this dish. It was good fish, cooked properly, and tasty. The vegetables were good, the chunks of artichoke very welcome. The dish, because the vegetables were moist, left a lot of liquid in the bottom of the rounded bowl in which the dish was placed. Hey, not as if the plate was designed for veggies, anyway.

I enjoyed myself largely. This was mostly a first impression, so take that in consideration. I’m not telling you how this place performs during rush hour.

Carino’s Italian
1802 North Brown Road
Lawrenceville, GA 30043
(678) 847-6300

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Brio is a pretty restaurant, nestled on the west side of Ashford Dunwoody. It’s almost too pretty for me, but given the hour I chose to eat, and the near total lack of choices around 3pm, I tried this place and was not disappointed.

I had a good bowl of bisque and a grilled bit of trout. There were real bits of lobster in the creamy bisque and the light sauce on the trout didn’t mask the delicate flavor of the fish. It’s large inside, roomy, dozens of places to sit. The equally large kitchen here is open to view, and the kitchen top is made of marble. Oh yeah, this place is a couple steps above the wings and beer crowd.

Service is attentive and superb, staff all in white and  sporting ties. Now, fair warning, as I was here during the “off off hours”, my experience isn’t typical of any meal during normal attendance and any kind of rush hour. But the brief impression I had was all good.

Brio Tuscan Grille
700 Ashwood Parkway
Atlanta, GA 30338
(678) 587-0017

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Mad Italian. Easy to find, just off 285 heading east, perhaps the easiest of the Savoy Drive restaurants to see along the Interstate. Great commuter stop, especially when the Loop resembles a parking lot. Known for cheese steaks, so I was developing an interest, yes.

Foodie Buddha, the Enlightened One, has troubled more with cheesesteaks than many (posts here and here), and on the latter link some time back, I said what I thought of steaks. It is indeed true that the best I ever had came from a basement cafeteria at the University of Pennsylvania, using provolone cheese and a lot of those spicy cherry peppers the Philadelphians favor. I had my share of street steaks back in the day. The basics of a cheese steak are simple: inexpensive cheese, lots of onions, inexpensive thin sliced steak. It’s in the execution that it succeeds or fails.

By that criterion, I think Mad Italian’s steak is a success. Dripping with cheese, I’d have liked a few more onions, and I was slow asking if they had hot cherry peppers. Otherwise I think this steak is pretty stinkin’ good. Drippy cheese is everywhere. The onions they do have add to the flavor. The roll is soft and doesn’t get in the way. A pair of thumbs up from this commuter.

Mad Italian
2197 Savoy Drive
Chamblee, GA 30341
(770) 451-8048

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You find it after a longish drive up Mount Vernon, past Chamblee Dunwoody and past Tilly Mills Road. On the left, near the corner of Jett Ferry and Mount Vernon is a L shaped strip mall, though it’s pretty large and dotted with individual separate stores. In any event, in this location, just about at the turn of the ‘L’, is 48th Street Market Italian.

Inside, it’s largely a store, a “provisions” style shop. There is plenty of wine. There are meats and really excellent looking breads. Towards the back, you can find prepared pastas and a counter where you can order sandwiches and salads. They had a muffelatta, of which I’ve only had the version associated with New Orleans. But I love a good one so I ordered this one to try. They have some excellent, if pricey chocolates as well. I ordered a bar for a coworker who loves dark chocolate.

Since this is a store first and an eatery second, space is limited. There are perhaps the equivalent of 16 tables that seat 4, the vast majority in Market Italian’s covered “outside” seating area. Most of these are two seaters scooted together to form 4 person tables. Coming of course at lunch there were plenty of people in work shirts drinking diet Coke. There aren’t so many wine drinkers in the noon time crowd.

The muffelatta is smaller than the New Orleans version, but with a delicate bread and the taste is spot on. Great meats, the “filling” that lines the sandwich is oh so good. My feeling, after taking my time with my sandwich, is that this place is a find. I haven’t been as excited about a sandwich shop in the Dunwoodies since I found Wright’s Gourmet. In its Italian specialty, it is superior to Alon’s and a lot more down to earth. While my wife is a bit uncomfortable in a place with the airs of Alons, there  are no affectations in this neighborhood Italian shop.

Given the quality, location is the only reason this place hasn’t been “found” yet.

Verdict: A find. High grade sandwich shop and store. Very highly recommended.

East 48th Street Market Italian
2462 Jett Ferry Road
Dunwoody, GA 30338

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Italia Cafe is one of these places that has managed to acquire a serious following by word of mouth. It’s #4 on Urbanspoon’s Lawrenceville ranking, and a casual examination of that ranking would have led any reasonable person to assume it was a pretty good place. Some of the reviews, however, are positively bubbly, as if this is not just a good restaurant, but an exceptional one. Many of the writers are first timers, people who aren’t married to iPhones and making daily or weekly reviews. So what would a more experienced reviewer think of the place? I was curious.

Our first try to get to Italia was blocked by the popularity of the place. We drove up, parked behind a vintage Chevrolet in immaculate condition, only to find that there was no seating for three that night. So we came back the next day, for a late lunch. It’s a pretty restaurant, carved out of an old Kentucky Fried Chicken, with perhaps a dozen tables for four and six to eight tables for two.

We ordered drinks and antipasto, and while we waited bread was served, along with a basil pesto and a seafood based dipping sauce. I took a bit of the bread and tried both sauces. I personally favored the pesto. My daughter liked the seafood sauce.

Antipasto followed, along with a salad my wife ordered, their Italian. We ended up carving the salad into three, so we could all have some. Though ranch was served with the salad, our waiter offered balsamic vinegar and olive oil, which I happily took. That pairing is easy on someone with my food issues. The antipasto was very good, the mozzarella so light and mild it could have easily been mistaken for a softer cheese. The salad, with dark green and tender leaves, was an excellent starter.

Entrees soon followed. My wife had their frutti di mare, and my daughter their gambero. I had their lamb chops, myself.

Every dish was very good, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing items from each plate. My daughter snagged a chop and my wife was offering bits of seafood from her plate. The chops were tender, and the wine sauce a welcome addition to the meat. The pasta was nicely cooked, what little I could try. The green beans, the brussels sprouts, the vegetables on my plate were spot on.

Around this time, the owner, Giorgio, came out, said his hellos, and recognized us from the night before. He apologized for the lack of seating that night. I told him that he should be happy he’s getting such a good crowd at nights. Before the night was over we also met one of the chefs from the back. Service overall here is personal, focused, and intimate, with an owner clearly engaged in his own business. Our waiter also seemed to thoroughly enjoy what he was doing.

It didn’t take much to talk us into a dessert. We haven’t been eating many desserts as I’ve been dieting, but I’m nearly through with this one, and what would a bite of something creamy hurt? My wife chose their sfogliatella napolitana (I can pronounce that about as well as Ash can pronounce “Klaatu Barada Nickto”). It’s a kind of cream filled pastry, with flavors of almond mixed in with the cream. Even I had to have a bite, a small bite, of our dessert. In a word: delicious.

In trying to define what I like about Italia, these elements stand out. The atmosphere is very elegant. The dishes are not cheap, but neither are they expensive, given the quality of the food. The food offers terrific value for the dollar. Service is excellent. And the intimacy of the dining experience sets it apart from almost any other eatery in the area. It’s easily one of the best restaurants within 10 minutes of Snellville, and to be frank, in the northeast of Atlanta.

Verdict: A focused, intimate place, terrific meals, excellent service, an engaged owner. A blogger’s dream restaurant in many ways. Very highly recommended, perhaps exceptional.

Italia Cafe
139 S Clayton Street
Lawrenceville, GA 30045
(678) 629-3040

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Getting to Italia

From Snellville:

Head down 124 towards Lawrenceville until you get to the intersection of Clayton Street and 124. Please note that Clayton Street becomes Grayson Highway right at this intersection, so if you see the Grayson Highway sign, turn left. Italia Cafe will be on your left in less than a block, so stay in the left most lane as you turn.

From Duluth:

From I-85 heading north, one way would be to take Pleasant Hill Road east from I-85, to Ronald Reagan Boulevard. You can take Ronald Reagan until it ends at 124 and turn left, but you can avoid a lot of traffic if you will exit at the Webb Ginn Road exit and turn left, under Ronald Reagan and away from Brookwood High School. Webb Ginn will cross 124 and this short cut will avoid most of the harsh traffic at the RR-124 intersection.

From Grayson and Loganville:

Get onto Highway 20, the road of many names, and follow it until it becomes Clayton Street.

From Suwanee:

I’d be tempted to take Sugarloaf Parkway from I-85 east until it runs into Highway 124. Take a left, and follow the Snellville instructions from that point on.

From Stone Mountain:

Take 78 to 124, and turn left. Follow the Snellville instructions from that point on.

Messina’s is a little hard to find. Head northeast along Highway 29 from the intersection of Beaver Ruin and Lawrenceville Highway. Go past the maroon sign of an Indian restaurant, pass the Hispanic place. And there it is, on the left, and hard to see. The building is much longer than it is wide, and doesn’t present a lot of face to the road. The sign is scarily short, in an age of oversized trucks and SUVs, and can’t be relied upon.

Though the AJC reviewed this restaurant in 2005 (and access Atlanta managed not to lose this review), I’m not sure it resembles the place Lori Johnston discussed after some five years. What I saw were  dark bare formica tables, showing clear signs of chipping and wear. Chairs were the inexpensive metal tube type you can pick up at Wall Mart or Target. The building seemed a little low roofed and a little small, a holdover from the days when the average home was perhaps 1,000 square feet in size. There are some nice features otherwise. The walls of the building are well maintained and the booths look nice, if a bit old. But this isn’t a place trying to win on looks.

It does seem to win the hearts of those in uniform. Two sheriffs were in the eatery when I arrived with my daughter. A gaggle of nurses soon followed.  The nurses must have ordered by phone, because soon after they sat their food arrived. Every plate I could see looked large, and the serving of fries was ample. That, at least, was an interesting sign. Otherwise, the clientèle were all over the board. Couples and singles, families, groups of men, groups of women, all combinations could be seen. Customers never filled the place, but they never stopped coming either.

I ended up ordering an Italian panini and my daughter got a gyro plate. She got fries, and I ended up with a side salad. There was very little to the side salad, just romaine lettuce and onions, and after the plain looks of the eatery and the rather plain salad, I was wondering if Messina’s was going to be a bust. Thankfully the sandwiches pushed aside that thought.

The panini I ordered was tasty, had a lot of flavor. My daughter’s gyro was huge. Half of it was about the size of my fist. She was very pleased with the taste and the sheer amount of food.

Service was decent. I can’t say it was much better than that. There were loud spills. People up front tended to be ignored at points. Staff could be slow seating people. The whole restaurant had the feeling of being a little understaffed on the day we arrived.

The cost of our meal was a nice surprise. Two of us were fed for about 14 dollars. None of what we had were the lunch specials, which were advertised at $5.25.

Verdict: Inexpensive food, with a lot of flavor. Recommended.

Messina’s Mediterranean Cuisine
4075 Lawrenceville Highway
Lilburn, GA 30047
(770) 935-9990

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I really like Carraba’s Italian Grill. I like the service, which is exceptionally good for chains in its price range. I like the bread, fresh, tasty and excellent. Most times I get into Carraba’s and I can’t get past the spaghetti and Italian sausage, which are very good. I came here recently for lunch, because I was in the area. They started, as usual, with a very good loaf of bread.

Just to change the routine, I had a soup and sandwich this day. The combo included half an Italian panini and a bowl of their spicy chicken soup. My waitress, excellent, offered me the choice of chips or pasta with the entrée. I chose pasta, and when chips arrived anyway, soon a serving of pasta was on my table.

The soup was good, and had a hint of spice. The sandwich was crusty and tasty. I don’t think either was as excellent as the spaghetti and sausage, but I have a serious soft spot for a good sausage.

Verdict: Good Italian eatery. Excellent bread, excellent service. Highly recommended.

Carrabas Italian Grill
1210 Ashford Crossing
Atlanta, GA 30346
(770) 804-0467

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Note: Amy on Food has a recent review of Carraba’s Italian Grill.

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