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Dolce's real deal Italian cuisine

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Most locals know her as just plain Luisa, the hard working restaurateur who imbues her dishes with the love of her native Italy. Her devoted following, however, would say Luisa's food is anything but plain.

Luisa Castiglioni Amadio, who hails from Milan, opened her namesake restaurant, Luisa's Brick Oven Pizza, on Montford Road in the early 1990s and established a new intensity of taste for area pizza dough by cooking it in a brick oven. In March 2003, Amadio and her husband Rudy, a native of Rome, opened their first gelato shop in Birkdale, followed by another shop in Dilworth that September. The Dilworth location even had a local teacher instructing conversational Italian on some weeknights.

In 2004, the Amadios sold the Birkdale location and then converted the Dilworth location into Dolce Ristorante Italiano, a charming Italian trattoria. OK, it says "Ristorante" in the name, but this is anything but the formal, Roman tomb kind of place with haughty sommeliers, decrumbers, and an ohmigosh check.

Dolce brims with energy and bustle. The patio, protruding as far as possible to the edge of the parking lot, is covered with an awning and surrounded with potted plants and bushes to define the space. The interior, which once had aqua walls and large paper stars, now sports terra cotta faux-finished walls and individual tables set with linen and candles. The tables hugging the outside wall cry out for a more accommodating, squishy banquette. The back area (fronting Kenilworth) is now the dessert room, with a few tables and a large lit display case filled with gelatos, tiramisu, bread pudding, and napoleons. People can enter from the street to order desserts. And if you sit back there later in the evening, the room becomes positively riveting if you are into voyeurism: "Is that her husband, or not?"

Service is not stiff. In fact, at times it can be a bit over the top. The servers are entertaining to watch, though, and extremely helpful. When ours couldn't answer a question, Luisa was quick to appear. The wine list is short, but entirely in Italian -- as is the beer list. My question about a wine resulted in her bringing two tasting glasses: one, a taste of the menu wine; the other a wine not on the list, but recommended. We went with her excellent recommendation.

The menu is brought to life by the experienced hand of Chef Pasquale Caruso, a Naples native, who cooked at Cirque in Manhattan and in northern New Jersey before coming to Charlotte last May. Caruso renders each item with unstinting taste and the kind of freshness that is the hallmark of Italian -- real Italian, not red and white Italian -- cuisine.

We could have easily -- and perhaps should've, judging from the scales the next day -- stopped with the antipasto misto: a grand heady array of paper-thin prosciutto di Parma, imported ham, marinated olives, roasted yellow and red peppers with onions, Tuscan white beans, imported cheeses, and toast points. This appetizer is more than enough for two, if not three, and a steal at eight bucks. Order two, and take one home to eat while watching the game.

A glorious Caesar, a garden with goat cheese, or the fabulous Fresca -- whichever salad you choose, you cannot miss. The Fresca contains a crunch of pear and frisee that unlocks a delicious blast of gorgonzola honey, a dressing worth bottling. Each of Dolce's salads bespeak a kitchen restrained in gratuitous embellishment.

The entrees include the usual roundup of pasta dishes. The difference here is the sparking sauces: penne in a smoked salmon sauce, cannelloni filled with mascarpone and spinach with parmigiano cream sauce, and the ever sultry Yukon Gold Gnocchi (Tuesdays only) with meat, butter sage, or four cheese sauces. The Sogliola alla Dolce is one of the chef's specialties, which I half ordered because I liked how the dish's name rolled off the server's tongue. Sogliola is a wondrous combination of lustrous lobster and crab meat rolled into a flounder filet and splashed with a cognac cream sauce. Another table favorite was the Saltimbocca Trastevaere: sautéed veal medallions with prosciutto di Parma and sage in a Frascati wine sauce. Entrees are served with two lackluster sides. Am I spoiled? Plus plating was the old-school, Dr Pepper 10, 2, and 4 presentation.

All of the desserts, including the gelato, are house-made. Current flavors of gelato include tiramisu and cheesecake -- so you have your cake and lick it, too. Or you can try an affogato: two scoops of gelato in espresso topped with whipped cream.

Dilworth residents have already embraced Dolce in a big way and now inveterate seekers of the real deal are mixing in. And why not? Dolce reminds me of the outdoor taverna where I chowed down on the fresh flavors of Italy, while waiting for the ferry in the port of Brindisi. Each dish was better than the last. When the boat finally arrived, I ordered takeaway of the items I hadn't yet tried.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? 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? Please notify us of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave a voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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