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The heat is on

A hot spot wannabe erupts in South Charlotte

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In the restaurant world, the leap from mastering a cadre of recipes in the kitchen to enjoying the fruits of a well-ordered operation is difficult. Yet the dream of owning a money-generating restaurant or a prosperous bar is ever present in a certain breed of entrepreneurs. For some of them, the perfect storm of the hospitality industry is having a spot where the food rocks as well as the after hour crowd. This can happen, but not often.

When Vesuvio Pizzeria was announced last spring and opened Sept. 1, 2006, a certain buzz was created -- since this would be a venture of well-known restaurateur Ciro Marino who owned (and sold) Campania Ristorante di Napoli in Piper Glen. But, Marino left Vesuvio in September and now the pizzeria is exclusively owned by Kirt Reddinger and a private investor. Reddinger, a native of Myrtle Beach, S.C., has been in the restaurant industry for 20 years and came to Charlotte to manage a fast-casual bar operation five years ago.

The 90-seat Vesuvio is located on the ground floor of the brightly lit, color-changing spire of Ballantyne Village, which my dining companion asked, as we approached, if it was a Catawba gambling casino. The interior of Vesuvio is welcoming in a kinda funky way with a mural of a towering volcano overlooking a glittering nightscape of the Bay of Naples. Impending catastrophe? The dining area is bound by large booths and bordered by a flank of windows bearing climbing vines. Across the small dining room is the bar area defined by the roaring, wood-burning oven. The owners have created a modestly budgeted mood -- upscale for a neighborhood pizzeria, but smallish for a bar.

But attracting the neighborhood and the bar crowd is what Reddinger is after and to that end he has acoustic music on Wednesdays and Fridays and a DJ on Saturdays. Yet the dinner hour crowd is maturely curved, some with howling kids in tow.

Vesuvio's wine list is brief with a few Italian selections; however, some bottles have been marked up excessively -- which would annoy me anywhere, but it's particularity irritating in a pizzeria.

The keystone to this operation is the two-ton wood burning oven brought in from Washington. Reddinger said the temperature can go as high as 800 to 900 degrees and can cook a pizza in three and a half minutes. Hmm. This may sound like a great time saver, but flavor, like breads, needs time to develop. So how was the pizza? Cooking so quickly at such a high heat left the thin crust of my pizza ashy and burned as if it were a Pompeii survivor. The toppings -- the San Marzano tomato sauce, shavings of prosciutto and baby-white mounds of fresh mozzarella (from cow's milk) -- were well balanced, not clogged with cheese. But the crust makes a pizza.

At the helm of the kitchen is Kevin O'Brien, a graduate of the culinary program at CPCC. The recipes were developed by the management team and the menu is classic southern Italian red and white food: seafood linguini, fettuccini Alfredo, and build-your-own pies. I don't mean to give the menu short shrift; it is similarly comforting, calculated, and familiar -- in spite of the screaming "NEW ITEM" notations on the menu. In fact, some items are terrific. The lasagna is thick and lusty and served in a family-sized portion.

Among the appetizers, the seemingly grease-free, crispy calamari is winning, both richly savory and tender. The banana peppers, stuffed with hot Italian sausage and bathed with a chunky marinara sauce, is the Italian version of chile rellenos -- a favorite bar food and hot enough to require lots of beer. On the other hand, the same chunky marinara overwhelms the mussels, the Caesar salad was snowed under by a large dose of dressing. Better was the mixed green salad with goat cheese, but again, the heavily drizzled balsamic needs a restrained hand.

The desserts are of the sweet and super-sweet variety. You may not have room since the portions are enormous, but if you get dessert try the dense Bananas Foster cheesecake. Skip the gnarled zeppole, Italian fried doughnuts, which were toughened as though they had been heated in a microwave, not cooked in a fryer, and had so much powdered sugar we inhaled it.

Prices on dinner entrees range from $8.50 to $11.50. The lunch menu offers paninis as well as meatball subs. Prices range from $7 to $9.

For the moment, the trick to eating at Vesuvio is having the baked pasta dishes or the yummy bar food. Two or three of these substantial snacks at $7.50 and $8.50 can make a meal. Small bites are the big deal here.

Vesuvio Pizzeria, 14815 John J Delaney Dr. in Ballantyne Village, 704-369-5040. Hours: 11:30 a.m. until 1 a.m. Monday through Friday. Weekends 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. Pizzas served until close. Live Music Wednesday and Friday nights, DJ Saturdays. Patio. AmEx, Visa, MC.

Eater's Digest

On Thursday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m., the Levine Museum of the New South will look at the religious traditions and the cuisine of the Middle East in "Children of Abraham and the Birth of God" with Dr. Jonathan Berkey, Professor of History at Davidson College. I will discuss Middle Eastern cuisine. The cost is $25 for Museum members; $30 for non-members and includes a Middle Eastern dinner. Reservations are required: 704-333-1887 ext. 501. See you there.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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