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MAMA MIA! Gnocchi with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and Parmesan ($18)

Cool Breeze

by Wendell Brock | Photography by Heidi Geldhauser | The Atlantan magazine | December 23, 2015

Mosey among the chubby columns of Ponce City Market’s new Central Food Hall and you’ll discover a kind Southern-food Walk of Fame: There’s Sean Brock’s Mexican spot, Linton Hopkins’ burger and chicken eateries, Anne Quatrano’s fish camp. But continue to the northeast corner of the historic 1926 Sears, Roebuck and Co. building, and you’re in a restaurant where the celebrity wattage shines brighter still.

This is Brezza Cucina, the newest offering from Jonathan Waxman, the chef who introduced California cuisine to New York in the ’80s and became one of America’s first culinary rock stars: a Ferrari-driving pond-hopper with a fancy for fresh ingredients and rustic European flavors. Partnering with chef Adam Evans, who made Ford Fry’s The Optimist a Westside destination, Waxman essentially transports the successful formula of Barbuto, his beloved Italian restaurant in Manhattan, to the hallowed halls of the newly transformed brick monolith on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Architect Mark Blair, who is on staff at project developer Jamestown Properties, creates a casual, industrial loft-like space that echoes the cooking, which is grounded in tradition but punched up with contemporary flourish.

Here, Waxman accords Evans the freedom to play—and to source locally. Thus, the chef splashes pristine hamachi crudo with the bright flavors of pistachio, fennel frond, orange segments and sea salt—and stirs his risotto with Alabama crab and autumnal butternut squash. There’s a pizza oven, a nice program of classic and original cocktails, plenty of antipasti and cheese. But like the pillars that support the room, the anchors of Brezza Cucina are the signature Jonathan Waxman dishes stamped with the “JW” monogram.

And so we found ourselves here one recent evening, sipping an Old-Fashioned (spiked with Buffalo Trace bourbon and cherry bitters) and a Shrub (a vodka-based sangria cousin made with balsamic-preserved citrus, red wine and ginger). We noshed on a plate of Riverview Farms prosciutto paired with preserved eggplant; plump roasted oysters slicked with balsamic butter; and the insalata di verdure: a lovely mélange of roasted peppers, onions, fennels and other veggies, perked up with orange zest and buttery pine nuts. Every bite was good. And then there was the JW kale salad: chopped greens mixed with pecorino cheese, breadcrumbs and anchovy dressing, just enough of everything to moisten the dish and give it a little crunch. Kale salads are everywhere now; this one elevates the genre.

From the Primi section, we loved-loved-loved the gnocchi. Showered with Parmesan and tossed with luscious hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, it was a dish so rich and satisfying that it could be your main course. But, no, we had to sample the Gulf red snapper with fennel and romesco. The fish was expertly executed, with a crispy crust and a moist interior.

The pièce de résistance, once again, was the JW chicken with salsa verde. Waxman has mastered the technique of roasting bird until the crust is dangerously crisp (meaning you’ll want to devour it all) and the flesh remains masterfully tender. At the last minute, he piles on a couple of handfuls of herbs, douses it all with olive oil and allows the flavors to coalesce. The green “salsa” is little more than pan juices, oil and the essence of herbs, and it begs for nothing more than a side of JW potatoes—crunchy spuds with grana and rosemary—which should be sprinkled with salt, and dipped and dragged around in the sauce. This is the Michelangelo of roast chicken, a masterpiece.

By the time dessert arrived, my guest was pushing back his plate and begging for a timeout. This didn’t stop me from enjoying the classic affogato. Pouring the little pitcher of espresso over the vanilla-bean gelato, it occurred to me that this is a well-nigh perfect finish to an abundant meal, because it marries just a touch of sweetness with a blast of caffeine. The budino was a bit more decadent: bittersweet chocolate pudding with whipped cream and almond-biscuit cookies. Heaven.

“Brezza” means “breeze” in Italian, and in the hustle and bustle of Ponce City Market, that’s exactly what this restaurant is: a cool spot to indulge in big flavors, simply prepared but with the polish of a formidable pedigree.

Brezza Cucina
Ponce City Market
675 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Ste. 158

Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 5-9pm
Prices: Starters, $4-$18; entrees, $18-$26; desserts, $8