In the old days -- like five years ago -- pizza lovers could be divided into two groups: those who love New York-style and those who don't know they love New York-style pizza ... yet. While the national momentum is to spawn pizzerias touting artisanal pizzas -- and we have those, too -- Charlotte's pie partiality remains divided along geographic lines. Folks who moved here from the New York metropolitan area prefer pliable crust pizzas, Chicagoans like it thick, and Californians favor a thin crust. We seem to have inherited a lot of New Yorkers here.
While most mature into new taste preferences for other foods, the taste preference for pizza seems to be hardwired, especially for people trying to keep the flame. The first taste of pizza is imprinted.
Last March, a few of my transplanted friends could hardly contain themselves that Libretto's Pizzeria, Authentic NYC Pizza and Italian Kitchen -- which opened in the EpiCentre in January 2009 -- was opening its second location in Ballantyne. This neighborhood, along with Huntersville, is part of the metropolitan area with a significant snowbird (Northern transplant) influence.
Near the door of Libretto's in Ballantyne is the large glass display case with pizzas sold by the slice. A large bar area fronts the dining room, which has retained vestiges from its former higher-end dining occupant. Tables are filled with families and lots of children: small ones in infant carriers propped on the table, school-age children eating pizzas or bowls of plain penne. One toddler slid off the banquette to hide under the table. Tables are covered with butcher paper -- ideal for coloring, a quiet activity. Here, the Crayolas were missing in action.
Don't get me wrong. I love kids. Libretto's, though, is not the site for quiet celebrations or romantic tête-à-têtes: This is a fast, casual Italian restaurant which welcomes -- in fact, encourages -- family gatherings, and after dance lessons or soccer practice dinners. While I strongly believe children should be exposed to all kinds of restaurants, picking up food off the floor is not what they should be exposed to. Not that the majority of children misbehaved; it only takes one in close proximity to do damage. It's not the kids (or the management here); it's their parents taking time off from their primary job -- parenting -- in public places.
Unfortunately, at Libretto's in Ballantyne, these extremely noisy children were only part of the problem. Service was the other. One night, we waited 24 minutes for a server to take our order. Then the dishes were delivered out of order. Not that I was expecting good service at a pizzeria, but I remain forever hopeful.
Obviously, diners are not here for the ambiance or the service. They are here for the food. This is the third Libretto's. The two in Charlotte are owned by Mike Libretto, whose family started the original Libretto's Pizzeria in Murray Hill (a neighborhood in Manhattan) in 1972. Family-friendly Italian insulates Libretto's from the somewhat diminished economic storm which has ravaged the restaurant landscape in Ballantyne.
The menu offers recipes, heavily informed by the New York metro area neighborhood aesthetic. And that's for the best. Pastas, salads, a few entrées, heroes and calzones fill the menu. The exception, though, is a creative twist on lasagna, which uses béchamel and is quite good. Some dishes could be better: The Sicilian chopped salad had anemic tomatoes and equally bland pre-pitted kalamatas. I'm not sure why people prefer gelded olives, which quickly lose their flavor.
The star, though, is the pizza, which is offered by the slice; 18-inch large; 10-inch personal; Sicilian; and Grandma. Seventeen specialty pizzas fill the roster as well as a selection of 23 toppings, including prosciutto, which has a premium price. General Manager John Brush of the downtown location says all the ingredients for the pizzas are from New York, hence the claim "authentic" New York City pizza. (The word City is important since Charlotte has quite a few pizzerias opened by folks from upper state New York.)
If you're from the City, it would be difficult to be disappointed with any of the food. The rough edges that need smoothing are in the dining room. But then my friends asked me why I just didn't take out. It is a pizzeria, after all.
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