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The Sequel

Steve Arooji seconds his success

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If duplication were easy, every restaurateur would do it. Rarely though does a restaurant find a formula that works a second time within the same town without turning to the cookie cutter "we're going to be a chain" mentality. Chain restaurants replicate success with identical proportions; A shrewd restaurateur realizes that with an existing establishment nearby, the details such as décor and menu must change, if only a little, in the newer sibling.

Veteran restaurateur Steve Arooji has hit his stride in his latest venture Arooji's Wine Room and Ristorante in South Park. His first restaurant is located in the Promenade at Providence, off Providence Road and I-485. The basis for his formula seems to be his welcoming atmosphere, which -- in a part of town becoming dominated by corporate chains -- is refreshing.

Opened in May of 2007, the 115-seat, including patio, Arooji's South Park has the feeling of an unassuming, yet well-heeled, enchanting Italianate eatery with vaulted ceilings, bold chandeliers and a gas fireplace tucked in one corner. Due to the physical characteristic of the shopping center, Arooji's has one entrance into the wine bar and another entrance on the opposing side (facing Earth Fare) with the maitre d' station -- confusing only if you are meeting someone at "the entrance." A small hallway filled with tables connects the front desk to the main dining room.

Eating anywhere during the holidays gives a sense of coziness and good will as families and friends gather away from the shopping mania and Arooji's atmosphere is spa-like calm.

Wine is part of the package and Arooji's list offers 700 selections ranging from $25 to over $2,000 with the majority in the $30 to $60 range. Not all wines are offered on the primary list, some are on the reserve (you need to ask for this), while the most sought after, highly allocated cult wines are offered at the discretion of the owner.

Arooji trained to be a civil engineer, but left that profession to follow his passion for wine. He immigrated to the states in the 1960s with his Iranian parents, and he says that his enjoyment of the grape can be attributed to the Iran's native varietal: shiraz. But during the late 1980s he became enamored with Italian wines and opened a cigar/wine bar in Cornelius when Lake Norman was a one-exit kind of place. He sold that venture to open the first Arooji's as strictly a wine bar with some tapas in 2003, but then added to the space to become a full-scale restaurant.

With him at the first Arooji's and now the executive chef in the South Park location is Naples-native Livio Inginito, who was once a chef at the now closed, award-winning Campania. The menu at Arooji's offers Tuscan and some south Italian favorites (and a Persian salad to boot). If 2008 proves to hold uncertain economic times, Italian food will prosper since this cuisine is the security blanket of the restaurant world. Nothing seems to be more comforting that old-school Italian.

Happily, while those paying attention to the economy may be prudent, there is no skimping in Inginito's kitchen's output. This well-edited menu includes hearty predictable fare: an almost lascivious tomato soup which elicits pleasurable sighs, and a vibrant, albeit oh-yeah, nicely dressed mozzarella and tomato salad. The cheese plate bejeweled with slices of pear and candied walnuts boasts a generous selection of Italian soft and hard cheeses, although some identification -- a server briefing -- would have been helpful. Sustained by a savory sauce, the shrimp starter is a stunner.

Entrée choices prove to be a marvel of spice-wielding dexterity and economy. Leave it to a Neapolitan to make a fish dish a sensation. The sweetly braised sea bass all'aqua pazza (crazy water) is imbued with the intense spry flavors of capers balanced by kalamata olives paired with a side of rustic garlic mashed potatoes. The crusty house bread comes in handy when negotiating the ribbons of pasta threaded through the delicately sautéed clams, mussels, shrimp and rings of calamari in the scoglio.

Desserts, unfortunately, seem to be an afterthought since not all are made in-house. "But they are imported," our server explained. What does come from the kitchen, though, is a densely flavored tiramisu. Entrees range from $23 to $39, pastas are $13 to $23. Lunch is less than $10.

The sound level of the live music is one of the flaws here. Although the performer sits in the back end of the bar area, the vaulted ceiling tends to bounce the sound around. If you like the music, this is a good thing. Luckily, the hostess does ask before seating if you would prefer to sit in the narrow hallway, which is shielded from the music.

Arooji's is all about comfort, not complications or innovations. Restaurateurs like Steve Arooji know that pleasing a crowd makes more sense (and cents) than impressing them. But sometimes, you can do both.

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