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A Memorable Summer Stop 

A taste of Italy here at home

Languid summer has over taken Charlotte. The scent of gardenias and magnolias christen the night air and fireflies put on their daily show at dusk. Summer travel plans are afoot. But you won't have to travel far if you are seeking a small, charming Italian restaurant with amazingly fresh tasting dishes similar to the ones you discovered in Amalfi, Florence, or Portofino on your last trip to Italy.

Volare Ristorante Italiano in Myers Park is such a place. With only 40-seats, co-owners Fabio Salazar and Chef Olivio Podda have put together a memorable operation. But there is a small down side to Volare. The name inspired a music feedback loop in my brain. Now, I constantly hear the Long Island wedding hall Bobby Rydell favorite "Volare, whoa oh, oh, oh."

Salazar, a native Colombian, met Podda, a native Sardinian, while working in Italy in the early 1980s. Volare is their first restaurant venture. Salazar is a veteran of several popular Italian restaurants in Charlotte, including the now closed Conte's Ristorante Italiano and Trattoria Rustica, while Podda was the chef at sibling restaurant Toscana. Volare originally opened in 1999 under a different owner, but Salazar says that "things didn't work out for him" and Salazar and Podda took over in 2000.

Unfurling my napkin in the calm atmosphere of Volare's dining room vanquished the "whoa, oh, ohs" for a brief time. The dining room walls are rough, but painted a soft, gentle yellow-gold. Tables are elegantly set with linens and large wineglasses. An immense framed print of an imaginary art gallery dominates one wall, while heavy curtains guard against outside intrusion. Although the dining room is small, nimble servers perform their tasks with choreographed precision. And they do this even with other diners jumping up to give aerobic hugs and air kisses. Volare is, after all, a neighborhood spot in Charlotte's ultimate zip code.

What allows the staff to work seamlessly together? Salazar said his staff has been together for a long time. He observes, "Olivio and I have worked together for 17 years in Italy, Connecticut, and here in Charlotte at different restaurants. The servers have worked with me for seven years." Service is exceptional at Volare.

The brief menu changes three times a year, and there are several specials offered on a daily basis. The menu flows from "Carpaccio with baby greens, shaved Parmesan, and truffle oil" to "Homemade ricotta and spinach ravioli"; from "Sliced buffalo mozzarella, tomato and basil salad" to "Osso buco." The daily specials here are actually special. One well-composed salad had thinly sliced beets as a base for arugula and gorgonzola surrounded by dots of aged balsamic.

Chef Podda's style isn't an exaggerated riff on Italian cuisine nor a tomato-y goo better suited to a steam table than a good restaurant. He does not rely heavily on Tuscan dishes where the standard "less than four ingredients, one typically salt," can be tedious. Rather, Volare features Italian cuisine with all of that country's reassuring freshness, along with the exquisite layering of flavors inherent in Italian dishes.

Among the starters are a few gems. The study mushroom stuffed with crabmeat leaves you with an uncontrollable gasp of pleasure. Mussels saut?ed in white wine was another favorite. We delighted in thin strips of veal floating over a lush wild mushroom and marsala sauce and a sea bass filet was rendered more forceful with a light white wine lemon sauce. However, its caviar crusting was a bit over the top, even for 28207.

Not drinking Italian wines in an Italian restaurant is unthinkable. Volare has a good selection of Italian wines, and a few American wines, with bottle prices ranging from $24 to $300. Entree prices range from $14 for "Angel hair pasta with tomatoes, basil and garlic" to $25 for "Filet mignon saut?ed with wild mushrooms and Barolo wine."

Among the sweet razzmatazz finale, we found the tiramisu delectable and the wild berry tart, which was devoid of any bakery-imposed sweetness, the perfect ending to the evening. The expresso, though, seemed to be part of an annoying area trend, one of diminishing proportions. For three bucks, I want more than one sip, please.

I've always loved the Italian marriage of form and function and what is laudable about Podda's efforts are his appealing close up perfect dishes that also taste like the ones you remember from your travels. If you close your eyes while at Volare, you can almost visualize the Gulf of Salerno or the port at Portofino.

Volare Ristorante Italiano, 545-B Providence Road, 704-370-0208. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 5:30pm until 10pm; until 11pm on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are recommended. AmEx, MC, Visa.

Tasty Tidbits

* The third annual Dine Out For Kids will occur on Tuesday, June 18. The participating 46 area restaurants or food outlets will donate a portion of that day's sales to Communities in School (CIS). In 2001, restaurants and corporations raised $32,000 for CIS during this event. Communities in Schools, founded in 1985, is part of the nations' largest and most effective drop-out prevention network. CIS helps young people stay in school and successfully learn and prepare for life by connecting needed community resources with schools. A list of the participating restaurants is available online at www.cischarlotte.org or call 704-335-0601, ext. 31 for more information.

* Desperately seeking recipes which require 1.2 pounds of ground beef -- not an even pound or even 1.5 pounds. Exactly 1.2 pounds. It seems area grocer Harris Teeter must know a plethora of these recipes since the weight of their new preground prepackaged beef is 1.2 pounds. I have never seen a recipe requiring 1.2 pounds of ground beef. Have you? If you have one handy, please send it to me.

* Carolina Beverage Corp., maker of Cheerwine soft drinks, is celebrating its 85th year. Founded in 1917 by L.D. Peeler, this family business, headquartered in Salisbury, markets its products throughout North and South Carolina and portions of Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia. This spring, the company introduced Cheerwine Swirl, Cheerwine flavored sherbet swirled in vanilla ice cream, available only at Food Lion.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Tasty Tidbits: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. *

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