Italian cuisine is the security blanket for the Western world, if not for the American restaurant world. Not the glorified gentrified foods of the Italian north; it's old-school, red and white, lethargy inducing carb dishes that are the best shelter in uncertain times and uneasy wallets. The Greek community has always known this in Charlotte. When newly arrived immigrants came to the Q.C. in the 1950s and 1960s many set up Italian eateries -- with baklava, of course.
Fast forward to this century and finding Italian eateries in Charlotte owned by Greek Americans is as common as tree bands in Myers Park.
In 2001 entrepreneur Alex Sboukis opened Carmella's Pizza Grill in south Charlotte. ("I'm half Greek, half Sicilian," he says.) So you're expecting the southern Italian Greek mix, right? Lasagna? He's got that. Grape leaves? Yep. A meatball sub as well as a gyros? Check, check. Pierogi? Hey what's a Slavic dumpling doing in this menu?
It turns out that Sboukis is from Cleveland, a city with a large Polish and Slavic population, and thus this bit of his home shows up on the Carmella's menu. These Polish-styled fried pierogis, smothered with thinly sliced grilled onions, could stand more time over the heat, however. Aside from the nod to Cleveland's ethnic heritage and the Buffalo wings, Jalapeno cheddar poppers, Philly cheese steak, deviled eggs, tuna melt, Reuben, grilled American cheese sandwich, and the burgers -- most of the other items are southern Italian or Greek.
From the crackerjack box interior Sboukis has cobbled two retail spaces and now a covered patio. The first space, in what had been the entire eatery two years ago, is sparse with thread-bare carpeting and oddly configured with a crystal chandelier over one booth. This area serves as the holding room for take out orders or quick slices and offers a "Ms. Pac-Man" arcade game and an ATM machine.
The second space looks like the Wayne's World basement complete with dark wood paneling, ringed with a plastic grapevine, the staring heads of a moose and a boar -- knish a chain only dreams of having. The bar is located towards the rear of this section and the smoke level can make eating in this room a challenge. Sboukis plans to address this problem during a near-future renovation and plans to include "smoke eaters" in the dining room ceiling.
On Tuesdays, Carmella's is packed for dollar a slice and dollar a beer (domestic, that is). According to Sboukis, Biker Night at his Fort Mill location is equally as popular and features a free buffet of wings, pizza, and pasta and $1.50 beers.
For a buck a slice, it would be hard to care whether the pizza was good. Is it good? Carmella's touts New York styled pizza, which I'm never sure if that means those greasy foldable slices you can get at some places in Manhattan or just any pizza made in the state of N.Y. -- or the pizza corridor from Philadelphia to Boston? Is it the baking temperature, type of oven, the cheese, the dough, a combination? Ask anyone about pizza and you quickly learn pizza is personal. But taking a cue from Peter Reinhart -- noted baker, author of seven books, and an expert on pizza -- I've concluded the pizza, like men, is best judged the morning after. Carmella's pizzas are in the ordinary category, not artisanal, with fair crusts. But they do not age well. The culprit seems to be the mozzarella on their "Supreme": it smothers -- not becomes -- the pie like a poorly formulated cosmetic.
In the kitchen, making many of the house specials -- such as the cheesecake and gently flavored lasagna -- is Sboukis' mother-in-law Maria Katsanas. She also makes the rich and moist meatballs found on subs and pasta.
Appetizers are an eclectic mix. The dolmas spritzed with lemon had a perfectly balanced interior, but not the more delicate female grape leaf exterior. The greasy heat-seeking wings improve with blue cheese. The steak sandwich oozes with provolone, silky brown onions and green pepper strips, and mushrooms. The gyro, a safe bet, turned out not to be one and the disappointing antipasto salad consisted of small spirals of undistinguished meats and provolone, a large caper, some olives, peppers, and chopped iceberg lettuce.
Desserts are polite, and could use more gusto. These include a selection of flavored crust-less cheesecakes, canolis, tiramisu, pieces of too-syrupy baklava, and toasted almond cream cake. These can be perused and picked up in the cooler for take out.
Prices are key to Carmella's, ranging from $2.50 per slice to $14.95 for Shrimp Fra Diavolo. Sandwiches come in two sizes and most are either $5.95 or $7.95 inclusive of a side. On Tuesdays the wait is long for pizza (since it's only $1 per slice), but servers will do their best to keep other foods coming. Outside people gather around patio tables with up-to-the-rim buckets of beers and 18-inch pies.
Ultimately it's the price point that makes Carmella's. The neighborhood has embraced the prices and the kitschy, smoky, hole-in-the-wall atmospherics ... and the multiculti, unpretentious food.
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