BROOKHAVEN’S VALENZA OFFERS A TASTE OF ITALY, CLOSE TO HOME!
There’s something alluring about the Italian way of life—and of dining. It’s marked by unhurried meals enjoyed with family and friends, made with ingredients grown nearby and crafted with care.
Though I’ve enjoyed the convivial environs and solid, flavorful dishes at Brookhaven’s Valenza over the years since it opened in 2007, a trio of recent visits cemented its place on my short list of local feel-good spots. It all started when a friend and I wandered over after a meal at another Dresden-adjacent eatery. We weren’t quite finished with our marathon catch-up session, so we found ourselves at Valenza’s bar for a nightcap. The friendly bartender chatted through some options, and I ended up with a glass of new to me Fernet Branca Menta, an inky digestif packed with bitter herbs and peppermint. As I watched patrons meander out after a satisfying meal, it reminded me to put the eatery back on my radar.
A few weeks later, my husband and I were worn out from a marathon work week, so I made an early Friday dinner reservation. We arrived just as the restaurant was filling up, and it was heart-warming to watch couples settling in for intimate meals and big friend groups having lively conversations. Our meal kicked off with the cozze appetizer, a steaming, fragrant bowl of meaty mussels perfumed with roasted garlic, fennel, Sambuca, tomatoes and white wine, and served with grilled ciabatta.
Just as I was deciding on the next menu pick, owner Michel Arnette was making his rounds, the cadre of neighborhood regulars greeting him making it evident that he knew the lion’s share of the dining room. He shared that his favorite comfort dish is the capellini, the spindly pasta layered with a simple yet satisfying sauce of fresh heirloom tomatoes, basil and parmesan. “It reminds me of my time studying abroad in Italy,” he says, noting that while he was a student, such flavorful (and affordable) meals were staples.
We decided to indulge in his other favorites: the spaghettini topped with fist-sized meatballs made of tender veal, pork and beef; a tart sauce of San Marzano tomatoes and red wine; and mezze maniche. The latter means “short sleeves,” as they’re about half the length of rigatoni noodles. Valenza’s decadent version comes tossed with a silky ragu made of tender pork shoulder, Umbrian lentils, white wine and roasted red peppers, topped with crunchy breadcrumbs with a touch of heat from chili oil. I watched with amusement as a large table of friends passed their dishes for others in their group to taste, unable to pick a favorite but content to enjoy them all and each other’s company. It was the kind of simple, comforting meal that soothes the body and mind.
Shortly thereafter, I visited for an early dinner with friends who declared Valenza one of their favorite restaurants around town. Our spot on the shaded patio was balmy but pleasant, the air fragrant from a tiered garden of herbs growing nearby. One of my companions, an Italian wine aficionado, ordered a bottle of Antinori’s Il Bruciato Super Tuscan. The complex, juicy blend of Cabernet, Syrah and merlot whet our appetites for the meal to come.
Who can resist fresh-baked bread? It’s one of the singular pleasures of travel in Italy, and often I’ve found myself led by my nose to delightful bakeries based on scent alone. Valenza’s kitchen does a handsome job with the simple, rustic pane starter. Rosemary focaccia and sourdough come piled high on a board, tucked around dishes of creamy whipped ricotta and herbed olive oil. I’m a sucker for expertly done octopus, and this version is flawless. The Mediterranean cephalopod is grilled to a perfectly tender-crisp texture, served atop wedges of panelle (Sicilian chickpea fritters that have a texture similar to crispy polenta), dressed with verdant mint, Castelvetrano olives, pine nuts and pea shoots, and drizzled with mildly spicy aleppo pepper oil. It’s as pretty as it is delicious.
A classic Caesar salad (or Cesare—the Italian spelling on Valenza’s menu) is a thing of beauty. This version comes with the requisite crisp romaine leaves, parmesan and anchovy filets, while the addition of fresh mint grown in the on-site garden gives it a touch of extra interest. Continuing the mare theme of the evening, the salmone was an obvious choice. A filet of steelhead salmon is wood-grilled, and garden-forward accompaniments such as artichoke, white beans, oven-dried tomato and tangy olive pesto make it the ideal blend of hearty and healthy.
Sated though we were, who could resist the cioccolato? The play of textures—luxurious chocolate pudding, crunchy toasted hazelnuts and sea salt flecks, creamy caramel gelato and light-as-air whipped cream—adds to the dessert’s interest. The drizzle of earthy extravirgin olive oil reinforces the connection to Italy.
Three visits over the course of a season do not a regular make. However, those individual visits added up to much more: They cemented Valenza’s place in my regular rotation as one that brings my beloved Italy closer to home.
Prices: antipasti: $8-$24; primi: $20-$28; secondi: $24-$44; sides: $10; desserts: $10.
Recommended: Pane, mussels, octopus, Caesar salad, spaghettini, mezze maniche, salmon, cioccolato.
Bottom line: This neighborhood eatery embraces the Italian ideals of gracious service, locally grown ingredients, complex wine and simple, flavorful dishes.
PHOTOS: Erik Meadows
Senior Contributing Editor and Beauty Columnist at Simply Buckhead. Travel, Food and Design Writer and Author.