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An Italian embrace

Veteran restaurateurs open old-style Italian eatery



If you really want to stir things up, try telling New Yorkers where to get good pizza in town. Their loyalty to homegrown pizzerias is akin to Yankee/Mets -- even Dodger -- devotion. In much of the Northeast, pizzerias are second- or third-generation eateries using secret family recipes for the sauce and the dough. After all, pizza started its trek across the United States from New York a century ago.

What's makes a great pie and why is there so much variation? Skill, fresh ingredients and the type of oven are paramount. The oven, be it coal-fired brick or wood-burning, is critical to the taste of a great pizza crust. Most electric, convection, and gas ovens cannot reach the high heat necessary for the crust to crisp, and the lack of wood or coal results in an absence of smokiness. But similar to new regulations for barbecue, building ovens with an actual fire comes with its own expensive regulations or, depending on location, may be forbidden altogether.

In Manhattan and the greater NYC area, no consensus exists about the best pizza. I contend that pizza preference has a lot to do with geography, as in how far the pizzeria is from home and whether delivery is offered. But, the pizza of youthful memories may not be your preference today --just as drinking rotgut during college gave way to Mollydooker's Blue Eyed Boy Shiraz now. Tastes, and understanding life's subtle complexities, change.

In Charlotte's culinary youth, one of the first great pizzerias to bake good Italian- and N.Y.-styled pizzas was Carlo's, which opened in 1975. Carlo's was a perennial readers' winner of CL's Best Pizza in Charlotte in the early 1990s. When the owners, the Brucia family, expanded to South Boulevard in 1986, they got brother-in-law Giacomo Virgavamo, a native from Burgio, Sicily, to open that location. Virgavamo came to Charlotte via a stint in pizzerias and Italian restaurants in Queens, N.Y.

Virgavamo became best known at the Carlo's on North Tryon, which was sold in 2006. The decision was made to kill the name because people nowadays confuse Carlo's with a Mexican restaurant. In October 2007, Virgavamo teamed up with native Neapolitan Salvadore Illiano, who owned Romano's in Concord, to open the 50-seat Giacomo's Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant in a small University area shopping strip.

Pizza boxes are stacked high directly behind Giacomo's cash register. The small dining area off to the right is surrounded by silk grape plants and bare-topped tables. A television shouts out the news from the corner. Families clustered at tables seem to be known by the servers. I felt so welcomed, I wanted to like the food as well. But knowing that this is a family business with extensive knowledge of Charlotte's proclivity to blander versions of classic southern Italian dishes gives me pause. Besides, I didn't smell a coal-burning oven.

Giacomo's menu is bulletproof and lengthy: 33 pasta dishes, 31 house specials, 23 hot and cold sub sandwiches, and pizza, both New York and Sicilian. Add calzones, sausage rolls, stromboli and baked clams on the starter list and you have a roster with something for everyone. Most patrons seem to come for the pizza, though.

Giacomo's light, resilient, pliant N.Y.-styled pizza crust is made by Illiano and comes in four sizes from 12 inch to 18. The N.Y. dough has the durable quality of a perfunctory taste memory: nothing memorable, but sure to be consistent. Only fire -- or a faulty oven -- creates variance. Fresh mozzarella flecked with diced tomatoes and slices of green olives work in concert on their Bruschetta while thick rectangular Sicilian pizzas include deft touches of basil and buffalo milk mozzarella.

Giacomo's, though, is more than pizza. Sure, there are the tried and true red and white southern Italian dishes that have given Italian food a bad rap for the past 50 years. Their subs, while not temptingly clever, are filing and satisfying. But leave it to these coastal Italians to raise squid from humble to spectacular. Tendrils of precisely cooked linguini wind around oh-so-tender slices of calamari. This is such a deal at $10, I wondered why everyone hasn't ordered one.

Giacomo's desserts seem unworthy of the calorie compromise and only the zeppelin, deep-fried puffs of dough, which tasted as if they were heated in the microwave, are made in house. But Giacomo's is easy on the wallet: Most lunch items are $5.25 to $6; dinner $8 to $15 for the Fra Diavolo seafood entrée (inclusive of a side salad).

You can't help but like Salvadore and Giacomo: Their accents are thick and as charming as their stellar marinara. They are ever present, smiling from the kitchen while other family members circulate and make customers feel wanted. Forget the pizza: I'd go again just for that southern, albeit Italian, hospitality.

Prices, personnel, dishes, and operating times are accurate as of March 2008, the time of publication. Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? 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 or wine events?

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