Center City is by far the best descriptive name of the urban middle of Charlotte. When the pretentious-sounding Uptown beat Downtown 20 years ago, I was surprised because, geographically speaking, the core of the city is not the highest hill. This is the Piedmont, after all: multiple foothills. But the "in-the-know" people were dead-on to name it Center City since Charlotte has concentric rings of development.
Adding to this moniker confusion are the four wards of Center City. Wards are typically political divisions: New Orleans has 17; Philadelphia has more than 40; Charlotte has four. The city was sliced into these sci-fi galactic quadrants, treating the city core as a separate entity rather the actual middle of Charlotte. Plus, not all quadrants, um, wards developed equally. Fourth Ward has had housing for a century, while First Ward only recently reinvented itself as a neighborhood.
Last August, owners Louie and Marguerite Suppa opened the 90-seat Villa Francesca Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria in a free-standing building -- with parking -- on what had been a desolate corner of Caldwell and 7th streets in First Ward. A few patio tables line the front of the building and face the head-on parking. The interior is heavy with maroon booths, plastic plants, overhead fans, walls with murals -- including one of the Center City -- and a dangling bevy of classic Chianti fiascos (the basket bottles) over the bar. The kitchen is exposed behind the high counter and the take-out counter is stacked with pizza boxes. No music plays here. In its stead is a television focused on sports. In fact, the feel (without the mural and plastic plants) is more sports bar -- with an abbreviated beer roster -- than pizzeria.
The owners came to Charlotte several years ago from Brooklyn. Louie Suppa, born in Sicily, arrived in that New York borough at a young age and helped his father in their family-owned pizzeria. Marguerite Suppa grew up on Long Island. Together, they have created a New York styled Italian neighborhood restaurant where pizzas are sold by the slice and the mozzarella is house-made.
The menu is lengthy and Neapolitan (red and white food) with 21 pasta dishes ($12 to $15), 14 entrees ($13 to $23), nine hero sandwiches and five calzones and rolls. But the choices are the usual suspects: lasagna, penne, spaghetti and meatballs, chicken marsala and eggplant parmigiana.
Hot bread is not offered with the meal, though garlic knots and garlic bread may be purchased. The appetizers are a mixed bag -- more prosaic than polished. The crispy calamari misses the spritz of fresh lemon while the baked clam starter is indefensible. Heavily seasoned bread crumbs so occluded the clams that I found myself on a search mission.
Entreés provide personal interpretations of well-established themes. The grilled chicken on the pasta dishes was dry; better were the large meatballs. Pizza, though, is the primary appeal, and this pizza is New York styled good. The crust is pliable and non-greasy because the toppings are balanced. The Italian sausage is made in Jersey, while the peppers are thickly sliced. The only drawback to the pizza is the cost of the toppings: $3.25 each. So if you start with an 18-inch New York style pizza ($15) and add three toppings, the cost is about $25. The price of toppings is not listed on the menu.
Specialty pizzas, however, ranging in price from $19 to $24 including the Brooklyn Bridge (descriptors are also not on the menu), are on the list. Also offered are brick-oven thin-crust pizzas ($18), square Sicilian pizzas ($18), and square Long Island styled Grandma Pizza ($18), a pizza alla casalinga akin to the pizzas made in Italian homes, traditionally with less cheese (cheese was expensive), and then strewn with tomatoes from the garden. However, since this pizza became popular in the New York area, circa 1970, current presentations are cheesier.
Service is friendly, but you may lack silverware and other necessary equipment for dinner. My newest peeve is warm red wine -- which I also had here. While the basic rule of thumb is to serve red wines at room temperature, it is also probable that pronouncement came from a wine lover living in a cold European castle. Simple, fruity red wines are best served around 60 degrees -- not 78 degrees. Yet Villa Francesca does convey a carefully calibrated sense of familiarity, which is good for the neighborhood in need of rustic Italian comfort food.
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