If you don't live in Ballantyne, chances are you won't venture there for dinner, either. In general, people dine near their homes or an event. So for restaurateurs in Ballantyne, or any suburban area for that matter, becoming a great neighborhood restaurant is critical, and the recipe to do so requires offering consistent and well-crafted fare.
For Chef Eloy Roy and his wife and co-owner Gabriela, operating a quality-driven neighborhood eatery is old hand. The Roys, both of Italian descent, moved from their native Argentina to Miami in 1989, where they opened their first OGGI restaurant. Decades later, they sold their business and moved to the Charlotte area. In January, they opened OGGI Ristorante Italiano in Ballantyne.
The most welcoming aspect of this bright 70-seat spot is the protective foyer area that prevents the elements (rain, wind, cold, heat) from sweeping over the diners, an annoying occurrence at many strip mall restaurants. The dining room, surrounded by stone and red walls and large black comfortable booths, has that cozy exclusivity that focuses attention on the plate. This kind of intimacy allows the sense that the kitchen is cooking just for you — like at home. The vibe and clientele is casual and neighborhood-driven, but some entrée prices wander boldly into the low twenties.
Service, though, is too casual. Cheerful and welcoming? Absolutely. But being located so deep in a residential area typically means service falls to teenagers or those close to that level of inexperience. OGGI is no exception, unfortunately. One seasoned server in the dining room cannot rescue all the tables.
But OGGI's food can save the day. Roy says his menu represents many regions of Italy, but to the practiced eye most of the dishes are a virtual roundup of American Italian favorites, from the pastas to veal scaloppine and chicken piccata. One dish gives a nod to Roy's home country: The Argentine-cut skirt steak with caramelized onions and an Italian wine sauce.
The linguini makes a fine, flavorful introduction to Roy's kitchen. He prides himself on his house-made pastas. In fact, he once demonstrated his pasta-making skills to the culinary students at Johnson & Wales University in Miami. Of the nine or so pasta dishes, one of the best is the black (squid ink) linguini — gorgeous dark tangles of pasta envelop tiny, sweet, pink shrimp. Also absolutely delicious is the white linguini tossed with clams, plump little mussels and sliced calamari in a vibrant clam sauce. There are melting gnocchi, chubby ricotta and spinach dumplings, and a classically dense lasagna packed with flavor. Gluten-free pastas are available as well.
Appetites tend to flag after such filling primi, portioned here as main courses, but you can order to share if you want to go traditional (antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno/insalata, dolce). To my taste, the pastas outshine both the grilled and the green items. The thin filet of grilled salmon with spinach and tomatoes was surprisingly listless, and the Caesar salad overindulged. As with the pastas, though, the starters have a similar honest, unpretentious quality to them. The classically prepared portabella mushrooms with red peppers is so good the dish was inhaled by the table.
However you choose to approach the menu, save some room for a bite of sweet. Like the savory dishes, desserts are simple and small in number. And while there may be more to life — and Italian restaurants — than tiramisu, the one here is made in-house and terrific, infused with just enough mascarpone cheese to balance the espresso. Ask for extra spoons to share around the table.
OGGI's idealized version of homey Italiano won't convey you as far as Italy, but it's equally transporting and diverting and a welcomed addition to the neighborhood.