One family in Charlotte has been translating its family recipes into successful businesses since 1974. Giacomo, Giuseppe, and Francesco -- also known as Jack, Joe and Frank -- Brucia opened the first, and still operating, Carlo's Italian Restaurant & Pizza on North Tryon Street in that year. Since 1974, the Brucia family has had five Carlo's locations, including the popular Park Road spot, but subsequently sold all those restaurants.
"We open, then sell, and try to move our life on," noted Joe Brucia. Last September the family opened the 170-seat Fontanella Italian Ristorante in the Matthews Festival Shopping Center. Brothers Joe and Frank are in this location while Jack remains at Carlo's.
Fontanella means small fountain in Italian and diners are greeted by a fountain at the entrance of the restaurant and entertained by a small fountain in one dining room. The Brucias, who are from Alcamo, Sicily, liberally used stucco, stonework, tile, wall murals of coastal scenes, and arches to transform the space, creating a feeling of being in Italy -- or at least not in a strip shopping center. Tables are set with linens and covered with glass tops. Off to one side is a small wine cellar room ("Always reserved for the romantic couple," said our server). But Fontanella isn't that plastic, almost too perfect look. Rather, the restaurant has the same rustic feel as a New Jersey/Long Island Italian restaurant, which isn't too surprising since the brothers once owned a restaurant in Northern Jersey as well.
I feel so welcomed by Maria Brucia, wife of Joe, and Flavia, daughter of Joe, I want to like the food as well. I wonder if the proximity to a national Italian chain restaurant, literally a stone's throw away, has made the Brucia family bring about compromises on their menu. Have they dumbed down Italian cuisine as so many chain restaurants have done? Will the dishes be bland, bulky versions of their former selves?
The menu is long: 17 pasta dishes, 18 Italian specialties, 10 house specials, plus pizza. Carlo's is well known for their New York-style pizza and the same wholesome handmade pizza is served here in both thin and thick crust.
Fontanella is not a chef-driven, latest and greatest Italian restaurant. You'll find platters filled with red and white food. This is a family restaurant, run by a family and meant for families.
"We dedicate ourselves to making people feel at home here," commented Joe Brucia. They do that with the prices as well. Entrees range from $9.45 for baked ziti with salad to $19.25 for a ribeye with salad and pasta. Most pasta dishes are under $10.
As befits rustic cooking, there is much ado about bread and the crusty bread here is made in Joe's cousin's bakery in Northern Jersey and is served with packets of butter. Also rustic, I must add, is the service that, while convivial, is not always efficient.
First up are the appetizers. The stracciatella alla romano with strands of cooked egg, bits of spinach, and Romano cheese floating in chicken broth proves a delicious fill for a cold night. Next is a hefty bowl of warm mussels enveloped in the perfume of a white wine and garlic broth. The fried calamari was thickly sliced, expertly fried discs enlivened by a spritz of lemon.
While longtime fans of Carlo's may seek the familiar, such as their very good, brawny lasagna, I also opted for the unusual: the Salmon Alla Chitarra -- a large piece of grilled tender salmon in a sauce of plum tomatoes with capers and garlic flecked with the surprising addition of pepperoncini peppers. The contrast between the sweet salmon and the biting peppers at first was unexpected. But it has the same appeal of a lively mole in as much as the fire is in the bite and doesn't reside in your mouth.
Entrees come with salads, either a crisp Caesar or house, and more pasta; it's impossible to eat it all -- which is why nearly everyone takes home white styrofoam boxes.
In addition to dinner, the Brucias hope to draw the budget lunchers with a daily buffet. They also have a separate entrance and room with a few tables for those wanting take-out, desserts, gelato, or espresso.
Sicilian desserts have the inevitable chic of chocolate and fruit coulis. If you stroll past the exuberant dessert counter in the take-out area you'll see sfince covered in chocolate, a Sicilian profiterole; New York cheesecake with various toppings; chocolate hazelnut cake; mandorla (almond cake); cannolis; and tiramisu. The tiramisu, cannolis and occasionally an Italian cheesecake are made in-house. The other desserts are brought in from New York. Then stroll by the neighboring selection of gelatos and you'll regret being full. Take them home if you must, but like many things about Fontanella, they shouldn't be missed.
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