832 North Highland Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30306 (map); 404-897-1414; www.osteria832.com
Pizza type: Neapolitan-style
Oven type: Gas
The Skinny: Family hotspot in a cool neighborhood, pies can be wildly inconsistent, though
Price: Cheese, $8; Lombarda, $11, Margherita, $9, Weekly special, $16
Man, how your priorities shift when you have kids. Take dining out, for example. That swanky new restaurant in the hipster district? Not really on your radar... but that doesn't mean you're stuck with indoor playgrounds and crayons on the table. Plenty of restaurants totally get the foodie-and-family-friendly tapdance. Some restaurants even make it what they're known for. And those become the places you now seek out. Osteria 832's reputation around town is one of a place where you'll feel right at home whether it's a pre-bar-crawl nosh, a just-the-two-of-you date night, or a load-up-the-minivan family dinner... with a menu full of upscale pizzas and pastas meant to delight the kids AND cater to mom and dad's sophisticated palates. I wish they consistently delivered on the pizza part of that promise.
There are crayons on the table, but the kids' menu also spells out rules for the munchkins. Pretty basic stuff, but as a parent, it's a powerful tool to be able to point out, "You need to behave. It says so right on the menu." Osteria has fun with it; there's a tongue-in-cheek (I hope) policy that, "Unattended children will be sent home with a Red Bull and a puppy." Osteria 832 has, in fact, been singled out by more than one local publication as the most kid-friendly restaurant in the city.
But Osteria 832 also has a bit of a reputation for being hit-or-miss. For every person who loves it passionately, there's someone who was less than impressed. And on this night, that all-over-the-place tendency came out just as the pizzas did. The plain cheese was inoffensive if unremarkable, highlighting the thin hand-tossed dough, which becomes a crackly 12-inch crust after a stint of about four minutes on the stone hearth of what looked to be a Wood Stone Fire Deck oven.
My eight-year-old's Lombarda was a very good pie. Big crumbles of juicy sausage dotted the surface blanketed by mozz and gorgonzola. Of the four pies at my table, this was the only one that had any real lift or bubble structure in the rim. Crunchy and flat, sometimes to a fault. Even crust-lovers may find themselves leaving the bones at Osteria.
We Slice'rs often use the Margherita as the measuring stick for pizzerias. Thankfully for Osteria 832, I didn't base my judgment solely on theirs. I love a Margherita with a photogenic, more classical (some might say) construction of puddling mozzarella and whole basil leaves... but I'm willing to look past looks if it's got something scrumptious going on underneath. Sadly, this Margherita tasted exactly the way it appeared: like a plain cheese pie with too-few wispy frizzles of bland basil scattered about. Bleh.
Osteria 832 offers a weekly pizza special, usually based on seasonally available toppings. This week, the special featured bacon, roasted corn, roasted red pepper, scallions, and fontina. It smelled heavenly, with wide, meaty strips of bacon that actually had some color and crisp edges to them. Artfully arranged with the peppers and scallions, it was one of the prettier pies I've seen lately. I loved the taste (bacon and corn are staples for my grilled pizzas in summer), but that hit-or-miss rep reared its ugly head with some more practical concerns.
So, that happened a lot. Instead of using diced scallions, Osteria lays them on the pie in chewy lengths. Maybe for aesthetics, but they proved to be tough to cut through cleanly. Same with thicker strips of bacon, and long slices of peppers. Foodrunners at Osteria use a pizza wheel before serving, but I ended up doing a lot of extra sawing with a table knife to finish the job. Even after I got the slices separated, I grabbed hold of all those same toppings with my teeth as I chewed, just pulling things apart more than anything. I'm all for an attractive presentation, but pizza shouldn't be this frustrating to manipulate.
A look underneath showed even more inconsistency. One of those undercarriages (the special) is beautifully charred and tasted like it. One (the Margherita) is burnt. And definitely tasted like it. How could these four pies run such a gamut from average... to very good... to bland, boring, and burnt... to great-tasting-but-a-pain-in-the-ass?
That's my Osteria experience in a nutshell, I guess. Some good, some bad, with no real rhyme or reason as to which you'll get. They do a near-perfect special that'll already be off the menu by the time you read this... but render the standby Margherita almost inedible. An off night for the kitchen? Perhaps. But I'm afraid Osteria 832 has come off my go-to list. My kids are inconsistent enough when we dine out; I can't roll the dice on the restaurant, too.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.