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Appetito Buono

Affordable Italian is becoming native to Charlotte

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By all accounts, Charlotte and its surrounding neighborhoods have taken on so many relos from the North that the accents in some neighborhoods have that distinctly fast clip and vowel inversion spoken by Tony Soprano and his friends. (Well, maybe not exactly the Essex County, NJ, drawl, but close.) This accent shift has created a gastronomic shift as well. Italian restaurants -- the affordable kind -- are popping up like whack-a-moles all over town. But with all the new ones, some old favorites are still around to remember.

ONE SUCH NEW PLACE is Zio in Myers Park. The recipes here are from the Consol (formerly Consilvio) family of Abruzzo, Italy, via upper state New York. Zio is an offspring of Consol's Restaurant (nee Duff's) in Endicott, NY. Entrees here start at $6 and end at $17. Worthy of note is the three-hour slow-cooked meat sauce and the spicy spaghetti arribbiatta. The oddity (speaking as a former resident of the Manhattan area) is the open flame thin-crust grilled pizza. But, no worries. They serve regular pliable crust pizzas, too.

Zios, 116 Middleton Drive, 704-344-0100.

IN A SECLUDED SPOT in Strawberry Hill Shopping Center is Il Nido, owned by Marvin and Manuela Baron and Manuela's two sons, Sandro and Chris Lazzeri. The place is small and personal. For Italians, the menu is a collection of taste memories: penne alla bolognese, parmigiana di melanzane, spaghetti alla carbonara, scaloppine al beneventana, homemade pizza and Italian egg drop soup. Be sure to save room for the tiramisu.

Il Nido, 4219 Providence Road, 704-364-4445.

AMALFI Italian Cuisine is another local treasure. Owner Olympia Basso, a native from Naples, makes a zesty Margherita Napolitana thin-crust pizza that has a simplicity unmarred by excess. Another favorite is her linguine alle vongole (baby clams): precisely cooked al dente linguine dripping with olive oil, white wine, garlic and sweet clam nectar. Olympia told me once that she learned to cook by hanging out at the restaurants around the docks in Amalfi when she was a teenager. Not too shabby a place to learn the trade.

Amalfi Italian Cuisine, 8542 University City Blvd. 704-547-8651.

IN MATTHEWS is the Brucia family's Fontanella Italian Ristorante. The Brucias came to Charlotte from Alcamo, Sicily, via northern Jersey. At Fontanella you'll find plenty of red and white food and welcoming hosts. This is a family restaurant, run by a family, and meant for families.

Fontanella Italian Ristorante, 10412 E. Independence Blvd., Matthews, 704-844-0103.

ANOTHER ITALIAN RESTAURATEUR who runs super restaurants is Giosue Coppola, a Naples native, who owns the Portofino stores. Coppola worked in his family's restaurants in northern Jersey before coming to Charlotte over a decade ago.

Portofino Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, 3124 Eastway Drive, 704-568-7933; 5126 Park Road, 704-527-0702; Ayrsley Town Boulevard, 980-297-7080.

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