OK, even if we are Americans we can still appreciate the Italians winning the World Cup. Strictly from a food perspective I assumed the Italians would trounce Germany and France would beat Portugal. But choosing between Italy and France -- who also happen to be the two European gastronomic empires -- was more difficult. Then Italy won.
Coincidently, Italian cuisine is celebrating a new found popularity in town. You don't have to be a keen observer of the restaurant scene to notice the Italianization of food in Charlotte. Perhaps this is due to so many Italian restaurateurs (probably avid golfers) relocating to Charlotte from the snowy northeast. Hopefully these transplants will opt to open food emporiums featuring Italian food other than the red and white that has given Italy a culinary black eye.
Don't get me wrong, spaghetti is swell, but pasta is not what is exceptional about Italian food or what makes the casual eater almost crazed when talking about the last meal he had in Italy.
Whenever I think about Italy's Piedmont region -- and the foods I love -- I think about risotto. In Big Night (1996), one of the great food movies, two struggling immigrant Italian brothers, one a master chef, serve traditional Northern-style Italian food, such as risotto, to itinerant diners. Meanwhile, their competitor down the street grows richer by the minute serving spaghetti and meatballs. In the movie, the chef laboriously and lovingly tends to his risotto. Unlike Jasmine rice that can be thrown into a pot and steamed, risotto needs to be subtly coaxed into existence by constantly stirring and adding broth until the rice is tender, but firm.
It's hard to find good risotto so when you discover great risotto you want to tell everybody. So here goes: One of the best risottos -- no, the best risotto I've had outside of Florence -- can be found at the newly opened, 110-seat Fiamma Restaurant.
This restaurant was once the site of the Rhineland Haus. "We kept the beams, but that was about it," noted co-owner Kerwin Astudillo. "Then my partner and I compromised about everything else in the interior." The colors of the Piedmont prevail. A long bar stretches along one side of the dining room, beyond which is the wood-burning oven (fiamma means fire) and a busy open kitchen.
Astudillo and co-owner Fernando Campoverde are not Italian; they are natives of Ecuador, but are now US citizens. However, they have spent their lives making Italian food in Manhattan and the NYC area. Campoverde was executive chef for 14 years at Mezzogiorno Restaurant in SoHo while Astudillo became a master pizza pie maker in other restaurants in the city. They met at another restaurant where Campoverde was again the executive chef and Astudillo the master pie maker. They moved to Charlotte "because it's a better place for our families."
Lucky us. Fiamma is one of those dining experiences you can't wait to repeat. Their dishes achieve that sensory balance that some chefs only dream about.
Take the risotto primavera, which was an entrée special on one night: When a risotto is right, it's beautifully right with all the elements clicking into place like tumblers. Wow. We made such a fuss about this risotto that our neighboring table added it to their order.
Other starters seem ambitious for this small kitchen, but then one bite and it's magic. The calamari is sautéed in white wine and tastes of the sea. The salmon tartar is flawless. Soon a crisp-edged cheese pizza (gorgonzola, mozzarella, fontina and Parmesan) emerges from the oven and allows Astudillo to show his stuff. A sprightly salad with thin slices of pear and pecorino cheese sticks is quickly consumed. Then the last dab of pesto is wiped out of the bowl that arrived with the bread. Did we eat everything? Every crumb?
Then the entrées arrive. An orata, a mouthwatering small white fish from the Mediterranean Sea, is so lush and delicious it practicably explodes with flavor in my mouth. Even the pasta (which is made fresh each day) shows its pedigree. Ribbons of pappardelle, dotted with tender calamari, shrimp, and mussels, are impeccably al dente. A congenial harmony is achieved in the side dishes, and in all we tried, Chef Campoverde shows his penchant for smooth, densely flavored finishes.
Nobody warns you that the desserts are as good as all other sections of the menu. From the biscotti to tiramisu and the warm chocolate torte, these sweet endings prove irresistible.
The well chosen wine list is Italian, mainly Tuscan, with prices ranging from $20 to $60. It's easy to have a bottle or two here since they are fairly priced and a deliberate part of Fiamma's design. Astudillo said he wanted wines on the list that "everybody can afford."
Even in its infancy, Fiamma is rotating seats for the who's who of Dilworth/Myers Park. As one banker signals another, a Charlotte restaurateur stops by to greet another restaurateur at a neighboring table. What theater: How small town in a big town. But Fiamma is anything but small town. Chefs Astudillo and Campoverde's flavors are as big as they can get.
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