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Southern Italian in SouthEnd

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Over the course of a few years, many restaurant sites around Charlotte morph into another reality. Some spots always seem to be able to capture the whims of the eating habits of the times, others fail miserably. Now comes the 150-seat Dominick's Little Italy, Lotta Food in SouthEnd, a restaurant similar to its predecessor only by cuisine.The former tenant, Guytano's, a Tuscan-American Restaurant, had spent some serious money transforming this old brick warehouse into a stunning, dramatic interior, with a kitchen and the owner as center stage. Dominick's look is only slightly altered: some lighting has been added and the bar top changed. Gone is a large neon sign and the bar televisions broadcast the news rather than cooking shows. The cavernous open kitchen informality did not lend itself to the former tenant, but it does to a family or large group-style restaurant. The side fireplace gives only the slightest illusion of intimacy. Tables are covered with linen and then butcher paper. The new Zeitgeist here is to offer nothing fancy, only comfort food. Portions are big; expectations are small.

Manager Chris Giafaglione says, "We were excited to open in Charlotte. This is a good area with a good economy." Dominick's opened in late May. The primary partner is Paul Derrico of New York, who opened his first Dominick's in Norcross, GA, in 1994. Giafaglione also reported that Derrico is affiliated with BMG, the corporation that owns many regional bar chains such as Bar Charlotte, Have a Nice Day Cafe, Time, and Dixie's Tavern.

The restaurant is named after Derrico's great uncle Dominick. The marinara sauce, as well as other dishes, is the result of his family recipes. The menu in Charlotte is identical to the Georgia location. Chef Daniel Pape came from the Georgia store to oversee the kitchen operation in Charlotte.

The menu features Southern Italian cuisine: pastas, eggplant parmigiana, veal piccata. No pizza. Some of the specialty pastas, such as the ravioli, are made by locally owned Pasta and Provisions. Menu items can be bought in full or half portions. The prices range from $9.95 for a half portion of Eggplant Parmigiana to $24.95 for a full portion of Dominick's Veal. The price for half of a full portion is not half price. For example, the roasted red pepper ravioli in artichoke heart and spinach cream sauce is $18.95 for the full portion and $12.95 for the half portion. The portions, however, are gigantic. Some of the half portions could feed three people, but Giafaglione informed me that half portions were single portions and full portions would feed two or three. Okay, maybe if you're James Gandolfini, but the rest of us will leave packing a to-go box or two.

While listening to the familiar songs of Frank and Dean, we watched the gregarious patrons around us plowing through baskets of garlic rolls, dunking them mercilessly into the marinara sauce.

Of the appetizers, the thickly battered fried calamari proved slightly gummy, but the mussels and clams submerged in the light broth were especially pleasing. Leaves of crisp romaine were speckled with gorgonzola and splashed with a vinaigrette to produce an enticing palate cleanser. Strands of angel hair pasta wove their way around a boatload of miniature shrimp and a smathering of quartered artichoke hearts and spinach leaves in one pasta entree, which was heightened by the copious amount of garlic slivers in the broth.

If you would like wine with your meal, be advised the wine list is brief. Choices are listed on printed signs on the wall as well as the wine list, and featured are Italian and West Coast selections. Some are sold by the glass, too. Note that Dominick's has opted to serve wine in stemless glassware.

If you have saved room, a feat in itself, you will find the desserts too busy to be comfy. The cheesecake, one of the desserts made in house, is a worthy go until you are stopped by the dousing of chocolate syrup. How sweet can cheesecake be?

Nevertheless, Dominick's succeeds in what it wanted to do: provide popular and predictable Italian food in large, pass-the-plate-around portions.

Dominick's Little Italy, Lotta Food, 200 East Bland Street, 704-331-4010. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 5pm until 10pm; Friday and Saturday, 5pm until 11pm; Sunday 5pm until 9pm. AmEx, MC, Visa, Diners.

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