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Tuna ceviche with watermelon, serrano peppers and smoked sea salt

The Comeback Kid

by Dana Hazels Seith | Jezebel magazine | July 5, 2011

The first week Escorpion opened, a summer storm brought down the power of the Midtown neighborhood in which it’s situated. Owner Riccardo Ullio kept the doors open and the drinks flowing; with no electricity to operate a kitchen, all that could be served were chips and salsa. Ullio jokes that the bartenders were mixing drinks in the dark but muses on just how beautiful the restaurant looked by candlelight.

One can imagine the space with that dim, flickering light adding a layer of ambience that cannot be purchased. The candlelight enhancing the Day of the Dead-inspired restaurant, reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, with the sexy grit of the Southwest and Mexico, must have lent a dangerous, desert vibe. Ullio’s latest inception, Escorpion, his foray into a Mexican cantina concept, strays from his traditional Italian roots, though familiarity abounds. Elements of Ullio’s seven restaurants arrive in some fashion—from Lupe as the culinary inspiration to the barstools reupholstered in cowhide from Beleza to the gusto of Cuerno—all are given a second life.

In 2000, Ullio burst on the scene with his Inman Park hits, Sotto Sotto and Fritti, and later that decade came his Midtown misses: the aforementioned Beleza,
Cuerno and Lupe, respectively. Having learned from those missteps, Escorpion is decidedly casual both in design and on the plate, but there is a level of refinement that’s expected with a U Restaurant, and Escorpion delivers.

The highlights of the kitchen, led by Executive Chef Edgar Cruz, are the ceviche and small plates, worthy of a few orders. Particularly good are the octopus and tuna ceviches, where Cruz plays around with fruit flavors like watermelon and grapefruit. The tacos are nice, especially the very simple and surprisingly light fried shrimp. Comfort food comes from the small plates section in Sous Chef Maria Palma’s family recipe for pork tamales that are covered in an excellent and complex green mole.

The halibut with jalapeño broth is a standout main course, and the traditional dulce de leche cake is an optimal ending. A cantina is not worth its salt without a mention of tequila. Rest assured that Ullio has hired the very best in head mixologist Adam Fox (previously of the Flat Iron Lounge in NYC), who knows a thing or two about a quality pour. Drinks contain 100-percent agave, meaning there are zero fillers, and the agave al tiempo (loosely, the tequila of the season) list is a great place to start. Most of the cocktails on the menu are garnished with herbs and use herb infusions—certainly not a new trend, but one that’s appreciated and interesting given this context.

The opening of Escorpion brings a new area of the neighborhood to conquer, a fresh concept and bold flavor. It’s a comeback indeed for Ullio, and you can bet, in this desert setting, he won’t be backing down.

Q&A with Riccardo Ullio
Topics: Chaos theory and global inspiration

As someone who owns several restaurants in the city, what
do you think are the elements of a successful operation?

I’ve been reading a bit about chaos theory, and I think it’s
very interesting because one of the elements is how to solve
multiple differential equations that do not have any answers
to them. I sort of began to formulate my [take on] the restaurant
business based on these theories. One thing about
the chaos theory that’s interesting is that very small starting
parameters can make a huge difference down the road that
are sometimes unpredictable. In the end, there are different
things that play into the success of a restaurant: location,
service… and expectations.
It sounds subjective, to your point, that there’s a huge
gray area.

There is. Somebody might open up some little shack where
the food is pretty good and there are no expectations, and
everybody loves it, and it becomes the hot thing in town.
People are very much influenced by their preconceptions
and expectations.

You’re Italian and grew up both in Italy and Atlanta. Where
is this Mexican influence coming from?

Before Cuerno [Ullio’s now defunct Midtown tapas restaurant],
I just liked Spanish food. I like to travel; I’ve been to Spain a
lot. I like the culture and thought it was an interesting thing to
do. For me, it’s more of a question of wanting to create and do
something new and different. And I’ve been eating Mexican
food for a long time. All the guys who work in my kitchens
cook Mexican food for their families.