With a number of Charlotte restaurants shutting their doors, a smart move is to have a group of restaurants that offer recession-ready pricing. "The menu is price point perfect," notes co-owner Guy Ciccone. "With this economy this way, Phil & Tony's is a big hit." Ciccone, co-owner of all locations, is opening the third Phil & Tony's Brick Oven Pizza Bar in the Promenade Shopping Center later this month. That 200-seat restaurant, which includes patio seating for 80, will be operated by the other co-owners, husband and wife team Candy and Kenny Blewitt, who just happen to be friends of Ciccone's brother-in-law's sister. The executive chef at that location is David McGlade. Phil & Tony's first location opened in Ballantyne 18 months ago. That 80-seat location, the smallest of the three, is co-owned by Phil and Mary Kovalkoski. Phil, a lifelong friend of Ciccone from Scranton, PA, and a former beer distributor, has also lent his name to the enterprise. The second half of the name, Tony, comes from a former co-owner and chef of the Ballantyne location, Tony Mascellino. "He didn't want to make pizza anymore. He started out cooking for me at Guytano's. He was the saute cook. Now he wants to cook something big, something fancy. Not pizza," says Ciccone. The chef at the Ballantyne location is Lony Mondifir, who used to work for Ciccone in Florida. The Arboretum location, which opened last December, is the largest with 280 seats, including the 90-seat patio. This location is owned by Ciccone and his wife Robin, Phil Kovalkoski, and Dana and Jeff Gallo, also friends of Ciccone from Scranton. Jeff Gallo is also the chef at this location. "The menus are exactly the same," continues Ciccone. "It's California styled, global cuisine with trendy pizza. Like a Wolfgang Puck cafe. It's not just Italian." Phil & Tony's design at the Arboretum location is reminiscent of both the Rain Forest Cafe and Planet Hollywood. The room is painted in soft colors, the tables are bare topped, and floor to ceiling potted palms are located throughout the room. A stuffed monkey dangles from an exposed beam in the bar area. Underfoot are hard wood floors and spotted leopard carpeting. Overhead in the main dining area is a sphere with neon rings. The bar area, with insets of wine bottles and a television, has thin spikes of colorful neon lights on either side, and overhead lighting of flame red and stainless steel. The bricked kitchen area is open, but blocked from most diners' view by the bar. The din grows louder as the restaurant is packed with gaggles of neighborhood bon vivants out for a dinner, many with children, some on the table in infant carriers. The couple seated behind me asked to be moved to the patio area because the dining room was too loud. This location has been many incarnations since the shopping center opened a decade or so ago, but this latest life seems to acknowledge that people in this area of south Charlotte have jobs to hold down, bills to pay, and children's homework to do. "Who had the pepperoni pizza?" the runner urgently asked, as she stood poised to deliver a hot 10-inch pie to our table. To her dismay we informed her we had just been seated. "Oh dear," she exclaimed and scurried off. Service is haphazard. Black-outfitted servers are professional, but the runners seemed confused. The menu, conceived by Ciccone, is a mix of standard dishes with a scattering of Asian flavors. It is divided into three main categories: appetizers, shellfish and salads; 10 pizzas; and oven specialties, a section crowded with sandwiches, stomboli, spaghetti, lasagna and baked ziti. Appetizers range from $5 to $9, pizzas are $8 to $12 and oven specialties $7 to $12. Stir-fried vegetable pot stickers arrived in a moat of ginger soy sauce with a center of chopped boy choy. The wrappers were too densely clustered at the top, but the vegetable filling worked in concert with a splash of sauce. The housemade garlic knot rolls that accompany many of the appetizers and salads are fist sized and substantial. Another appetizer, the roasted clams, proved tough. The meatball sandwich on the Italian roll with housemade mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce was better, although the accompanying side of home fries were overcooked. The best at Phil & Tony's were dishes that were structurally simple. The salads are generous, superbly fresh, and a deal at $5. Fortunately the heavy herb ginger vinaigrette was left on the side so it could be used sparingly. Also good are the New York style pizzas. Here they are all the 10-inch variety, which is plenty for two. I particularly liked the feisty housemade duck sausage pizza with fontina, the perfect melting cheese, and bits of portabella. A minor note from the children's selections: the menu offers "baked spaghetti with pesto meatballs," but in fact, only one meatball is served. Also the wine by the glass pricing seems excessive. Not that this, nor other arguments with the food served here, seems to faze anyone dining at Phil and Tony's. The atmosphere is invigorating, the food plentiful, and the quasi-Italian fusion menu is a crowd-pleaser. The three different sizes of Phil & Tony's are prototypes for possible franchising. Ciccone says the next step is having his attorneys in Atlanta set up a franchise program. Ciccone hopes to open franchises in Raleigh-Durham, Greensboro, and Charleston. "I am a licensed general contractor in North and South Carolina," Ciccone says. "That will save me a lot of money." Phil & Tony's was designed by Ciccone and wife Robin who described it as "definitely California. A San Francisco or LA type of style. Themed out. Trendy, classy, and fun at the same time. Very futuristic, but doesn't get old." Ciccone and his wife came to Charlotte in 1997 after selling three restaurants in south Florida. They opened Guytano's in SouthEnd soon thereafter. Another Ciccone concept, Wild Tides, an upscale restaurant, was to have opened in SouthEnd this year but has been put on hold.

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