What is it with the Italian restaurants, Charlotte? You can’t swing a roasted octopus without hitting a new ristorante or a chef who’s waxing operatic about his nonna’s red sauce.
Even the chefs opening all those Italian restaurants are getting a little nervous about all those Italian restaurants. Paul Verica, chef/owner of The Stanley, started planning Orto, his new Italian project in NoDa, last spring. By the end of the year, two more Italian places had opened, with two more announced.
“It was killing me,” he admits. “Is everybody doing this?”
Looks like it. Not counting pizzerias, which are their own thing, a count of restaurants in the Charlotte area turned up 29 that are solely Italian.
With the opening later this year of Orto, Frank Scibelli’s Mama Ricotta spinoff Little Mama’s, and Osteria LuCa, that will climb to 32.
Compare that to French: If you skip creperies, the pizzerias of French food, there are six, after the still-lamented exits of Lumiere, Aix en Provence, and Le Cochon d’Or.
To be fair, it’s easier to turn a profit on Italian food than it is on French food. The customer expectations are different and the ingredients — all that cheese and canned tomatoes — are cheaper.
“I’m never doing fine dining again,” Verica says. “It’s not worth the stress.” At The Stanley, with an all-local, all-seasonal menu, a deep wine list, and a serious cocktail program, his profit margin is 10 to 12 percent. At Orto, even after buying a $17,000 pasta machine — and paying for his research trip to Italy later this month — he can expect profit margins of 18 to 20 percent.
“It’s approachable, everybody likes it, and it’s profitable,” he says. “I love what I do, but I have partners and a lot of debt.”
So when is enough too much? Frankly, when it’s too much of the same.
Taking a close look at menus and touring around Charlotte’s Italian world, I found a lot of good, even great, food. I found a lot that’s missing, too. With this many places, shouldn’t we have more variety?
It seems every Italian menu here has polpetto (meatballs), grilled octopus, and a risotto. Every salad menu has a Caprese, even when tomatoes are long out of season. Every dessert menu has tiramisu and gelato, which are midday snacks in Italy, but hardly any place has biscotti and a nice glass of vin santo, the traditional way to end an Italian meal.
Can’t we have something from Sicily that isn’t pizza? Can’t we have anything besides Tuscan?
Take the olives: The minute you take a seat in a café or trattoria in Italy, the waiter brings you a menu and a dish of olives. Here, every menu has house-marinated olives, and you’ll pay $6 to $7 for the privilege.
There, the variety of contorni — side dishes you share — is often breathtakingly seasonal and local: baby artichokes, stuffed squash blossoms, wild mushrooms, or simply dressed beans, depending on the season. Here, it’s almost always the same list of roasted broccoli and roasted cauliflower, with maybe some spinach or roasted carrots.
The dish I miss most of all: The chicken liver spreads, called Crostini Toscani in Florence. On a trip in 2017, I made a study of it, ordering it almost every night. The texture was always different, from chunky to smooth to almost liquid, but the experience was always the same: The perfect slow start to a great meal, while you study your menu and get ready to hand yourself over for a couple of hours.
Isn’t that the kind of food experience we go to Italy for? And isn’t that what we should be expecting when we get it here?
Italian food is porn for food lovers, and these are fat times. You can choose between high-end experiences, mid-range family-style places, and fast/cheap/fun places. Here are our picks:
High end: Still cheaper than a flight to Rome
The main players: Stagioni, Bruce Moffett’s love letter to a Tuscan ristorante; Indaco, the high-end chain from Charleston’s Indigo Road restaurant group; and Angeline’s at the Kimpton Hotel in Uptown, where the menu includes a power lunch and dinner prices aim at Uptown expense accounts.
Don’t miss: Volo, in the old Lumiere location. Take a look at that Sunday lunch menu and settle in for an afternoon. The three themed tasting menus at dinner — land, sea, and garden — are what a seasonal/local cuisine should aspire to be.
Forchetta, in the Holiday Inn Uptown. Yes, it’s a hotel restaurant, with wraps and burgers, but the rest of Luca Annunziatta’s menu is a bargain for ingredients and skill.
Cicchetti (say it chee-KEH-tee). Pierre Bader, whose Aria is a reliable spot for business lunches and pre-show dinners, added something we didn’t have when he opened Cicchetti last fall: A Venetian-style wine bar.
Sensi. This ambitious food and cocktail program is a welcome addition to the Ardrey Kell area, which has been under-served with restaurants that aren’t chains.
Mid-range: Where you’re family
Don’t miss: Zio Casual Italian. It’s a little worn, like a comfortable leather shoe, but it has more than you’d expect, including a seasonal garden and angel-hair pasta that’s made in-house. (The main drawback to recommending it is that it means I agree with Ted Williams on something.)
Oggi. Ballantyne needs to support this locally owned place, where they make all the pastas in-house. Owners Eloy and Gabriela Roy have Italian roots, but came here from Argentina.
Ciro’s. Locally owned in the restaurant-starved University City area, the menu is heavy with the classics, from Parmigianas to Franceses.
Aqua E Vino. The price range ($14 to $20 for shared antipasti, $23 to $38 for entrees) should put this one on the high-end list. But the atmosphere is small and warm, with Northern Italian inspiration. The pasta list is short but thoughtful: Risotto, pappardelle, gnocchi.
The main player: Maggiano’s.
Don’t miss: North Italia. There’s nothing particularly “North” about Tuscan chicken and Parmigiana, but the pastas are made in-house and there’s a good charcuterie board for sharing.
Capishe. The menu is basic (pastas, salads, sandwiches, pizzas), but both locations have been packing in fans. Now if people could just get the name right (it’s Capishe, not Capiche, capisce?)