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Low-key Pane e Vino makes a big impression

In the neighborhood

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If you don't live in Huntersville, chances are you won't venture there for dinner. Not that there's anything wrong with suburban outposts; people just tend to eat near home -- especially during the work week. Part of what makes a neighborhood a good place to live is a lively variety of neighborhood restaurants, featuring uncomplicated, fine food. The quintessential neighborhood spot is one easily recommended since the quality of the food is consistently good.

When you find a place like this that's not in your neighborhood, you can only wish the owner would open another one in yours. That's how I felt after taking a few bites of the Calamari fra Diavolo appetizer at Pane e Vino Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria in Huntersville.

Nothing seems more comforting in times of economic stress than the red and white food of Southern Italy. During the past decade, the number of Italian restaurants in the Charlotte area has grown exponentially, ranging from the exceptional to the exceptionally awful. At the pricey end are the Northern Italian darlings with white truffle sparked dishes and bouquet winery wine lists. At the other are the bargain emporiums, dishing out pizza (our lasting fast-food obsession), from a buffet line for a buck a slice.

Somewhere in the middle lies this neighborhood gem. Chef-owners and brothers Lando and Antonio Vicidomini opened the 74-seat Pane e Vino, their third restaurant, in February 2005. Their first eateries, both Amalfi Pizza and Italian Restaurants, are located in Statesville. The Vicidominis could not use the name Amalfi in Charlotte since a restaurant with that name exists in the University area; however, the brothers plan to open a third Amalfi near Hickory this summer.

The Vicidominis are from a small Italian town near Naples, Monte di Brosida, which coincidentally is also the hometown of another Charlotte restaurateur (and their friend) Josh Coppola of Portofino. After graduating from a culinary school in Naples, the Vicidominis came to the United States to work in one of their family's 10 Italian restaurants in Greensboro, N.C. When an opportunity arose a few years later in Statesville, they seized the opportunity.

Pane e Vino is located in one of the preponderance of newly developed neighborhood shopping centers known by the grocery store. In contrast to this anonymous exterior, the cozy dining room has the unpretentious and welcoming aura of a home kitchen. Behind the counter near the entrance are stacks of pizza boxes, which opens into the main dining room framed with windows.

The menu reveals a litany of sturdy southern Italian favorites: Pastas dishes, salads, subs and sandwiches, and of course, pizzas, both New York-styled and Sicilian. Bread matters, too -- and while not crusty, it is light, fluffy, and warm, paving the way for the main event: the first-rate appetizers. Trust coastal Italians to coax flavor from the ocean's creatures: Steaming mussels pile onto slices of bread soaking up a luxurious sauce while thickly sliced circles of calamari, cooked to tenderness, laze in a spicy bath. Seven bucks buys each of these appetizers, which could handily feed four. Now there's a deal.

No doubt the presence of plastic containers as conveyors of salad dressing for the house salad will seem too low-brow for some. While the house salad was unremarkable, the Caesar was unexpectedly good -- not drowning in an overwrought dressing. Both were inclusive of an entrée. Among the entrées, the Shrimp Parmesan turns out to be jumbo shrimp lightly breaded and quick fried with oozing mozzarella and house-made sauce with pasta on the side. Order the Toscana pasta entrée and it arrives at the table as a bracing agglomeration of tangled spaghetti and slices of grilled chicken. The dessert to have, and the only one made in-house, is a densely flavored tiramisu big enough for two.

Service, however, is where things come apart. Being so deep into a residential area typically means service falls to teenagers or those close to that level of inexperience. Pane e Vino is no exception. Seating is haphazard and dishes arrive in no particular time frame. We were curious about the contents of a nearby wine refrigerator, but were told all bottles were on the list. They were not. According to the owner, there is a short reserve list. But with entrées ranging from $9 (and that includes a salad) to $16, what are your service expectations?

The brothers Vicidomini offer flavorful dishes in abundant quantities. Just watch: Everyone goes home with a box. The main question about any restaurant boils down to this: Would you come back? Pane e Vino is a neighborly little place that's big on flavor. Even with its youthful, inexperienced servers, you'd have to think twice about not going back for another visit.

Eaters' Digest is back. Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please).

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