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A tale of two takeout joints 

Small is rarely coveted unless it comes to dress sizes. Want a small paycheck? Small portion? But in contrast to places of great expanse, small eateries, especially those with good takeout, are fitting for the times.

The sturdy comforts of good Italian food are a safe bet right now. An even safer bet is one producing wondrously large and filling sandwiches in a small neighborhood-style place. Owner Alfonzo Giacomucci opened Nonna's Kitchen and Italian Market last November in a hard, left-hand-turn spot near the intersections of McDowell and Morehead. The spot is small with only a few tables -- and grandma's (nonna) rocking chair.

Nonna's menu offers sandwiches divided into hot, cold, hoagies (cold) and paninis (hot). While some of these sandwiches are off-the-boat Italian, others are American favorites. Giacomucci says he's tailored his menu for a 50-50 split with some Greek influence, too.

Giacomucci, a native of Philly but who has been in Charlotte restaurants for 11 years, frequently visits his ancestral home in Abruzzi, Italy -- a place known for its salamis and sausages. "We grew up making capocollo," he notes. His capocollo shines on his Italian hoagie, which also has salami and hot sopressata. Nonna's hoagies (in Philly, cold subs are hoagies while a hot hoagie is a grinder) are sandwiches of memorable quantity. On "The Wrights Bros." sandwich is about two inches of rare roast beef slathered with a horseradish sauce with Swiss and provolone, lettuce and tomato. Also good is the ubiquitous meatball sandwich, which will bring back waves of memories for anyone who has spent time in the Northeast. The succulent beef and pork meatballs are highlighted with a house-made marinara. The grilled chicken panini with roasted red pepper and provolone may be an overkill with pesto mayonnaise (should mayo be on a sandwich with melted cheese?), but the hint of basil polishes this sandwich. While the chicken salad is worthy of note, as a sandwich on rye (one bread choice), this dish needs attention. The swirled rye bread made locally by Nova is too dry.

Nonna's has only a handful of merchandise in the market area. But on the shelves are an assortment of imported pastas, red wine stain remover, wines, refrigerated entrées and desserts. Wine is the growth area, and currently Nonna's offers a 46-bottle selection, ranging in price from $10.50 to $66, and is 60-percent Italian, with the rest a combination of French, Spanish, Australian and American. A tutored wine tasting will be held on Feb. 3 ($15 per person).

In the dessert case is a tres leches cake (not Italian, but a Giacomucci family recipe nevertheless); slices of apple pie; an ethereal-tasting, yet hefty portion of tiramisu; and a meglio di sesso chocolate cake. Prices range from $3.50 to $5.

Peruvian rotisserie chicken is known throughout South America, and now in some spots in the United States, as being some of the tastiest around. What makes this chicken is the hardwood charcoal rotisserie, which results in moist and tender meat imbued with smokiness, yet a skin that is bacon-crisp. But, Mecklenburg County does not have an eatery with a Peruvian charcoal rotisserie (the inspection procedures have proved daunting; one exists in Union County though). In Dilworth, however, Pio Pio Restaurant features Peruvian-styled rotisserie chicken, but employs a gas grill.

Pio Pio is a family-owned offshoot of the Pio Pio restaurants in Orlando, Fla., and New York. Situated in a venue ghosted by previous eateries, these new owners have tried to screen the dining room from oncoming headlights and have made the darkened interior more intimate with linen tablecloths topped by butcher paper, and a small three-seat rocked bar towards the rear. From this bar you can witness the chicken making its slow revolutions on the rotisserie.

Pio Pio is family-oriented. Many of the tables are filled with families while takeout here is also popular. Their Matador Combo ($33), enough for four people, offers a whole chicken, salad, rice and beans, French fries with sausages and plantains.

Pio's marinated grilled chicken -- what people come for -- is fully flavored, but without the renowned Peruvian crispy skin. With it comes hot and garlic dipping sauces, luscious slices of caramelized plantains or overly dry fried yucca strips, and a take-it-or-leave-it side of rice and beans. Here the hot sauce comes in handy. What I liked better is the collection of Colombian and Peruvian appetizers. The minced meat empanadas, a dish which reinvents itself throughout South America's many cuisines, is distinctly West Coast. Better is their arepa, not an angel biscuit-sized, circular corn cake arepa, but a corn-cake-type tortilla wrapped around a long peppery sausage -- the original corn dog. Quite good and a safe bet for $3.75.

Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To contact Tricia, send information via email (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter) for publication online:

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