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Chow baby 

Firenze offers Italian-style culinary comfort

Sizing up this decade of O's thus far, Charlotte has traded mac and cheese for pasta, please. Recruiting Italian restaurants must be the new edict among strip mall leasing agents. Not that this is a bad idea, mind you. Charlotte has already gone Euro with neighborhoods throughout the town suddenly Francofied. Why shouldn't our stomachs languish in sunny Italy?

Locally owned Italian restaurants have been around since the all-about-me 1980s. Si! was the hot spot at the end of that decade. The concept of Si! elevated the local Italian dining experience from operatic singing owners -- yes we had more than one such spot -- to a food emporium with the emphasis on food. Si!, beloved by foodists and Italian wine lovers alike, had style and grace, serving great Tuscan food without pretense. No tablecloths there. Their food was meant to be enjoyed and not comprehended.

Larger than life restaurateur Giovanni Lorenzi expanded his Si! into Uptown before Uptown was cool, opening near Morton's in the Carillion building. Then Si! closed downtown, then the Quail location. Lorenzi returned to his native Tuscany for a while, came back to Charlotte, and opened a pasta shop in Myers Park, which became Volare. Then he opened a wholesale pasta business up at the lake. Lorenzi next returned to Italy and then came back to Charlotte. Last September he opened Firenze Italian Restaurant and Bar in Piper Glen in a site formerly occupied by another long time favorite Italian restaurant, Campania.

It's all connected. Lorenzi's partner in Firenze is Jimmy Hermann who was also at Si! and then became an owner with Augusto Conte in Toscano. In a way Si! produced bloodlines still evident in the city -- in old Charlotte, that is.

At Firenze you enter a domain of style and grace, but more subdued and relaxed, almost aged. Linens are set just so, chairs are imported from Italy, while Murano glass chandeliers and sconces provide soft and flattering light. Anyone could look good here. No matter what you're wearing, someone at the next table is similarly dressed. From business to casual, people come here to enjoy themselves and Lorenzi is on hand to greet customers who suddenly remember him. The specter of Si! is never far from the core clientele, although newcomers seem equally welcome.

Lorenzi still has ties in Italy, His family owns a restaurant just outside of Florence and he uses this to our advantage: He brings chefs from Tuscany for three month stints in the kitchen at Firenze. The menu is filled with to-be-expected Italian offerings and this familiarity may provide the lure. The kitchen doesn't overreach, which also affords the wait staff to be extremely confident in predictions. The waiters move with ease and, in fact, service is one of Firenze exceptional features.

A roasted red pepper starter may seem mundane, but these are stuffed with parma ham and fontina cheese and then enhanced by bits of basil. Crispy calamari is mixed on a large platter with even crisper shrimp and bites of zucchini. The aromatic minestrone soup revels in an everyday celebration of true comfort food exuberance and is sure to dispel any winter chill.

But not all dishes are top notch. The veal osso bucco, a steady note in most Italian kitchens and virtually mistake-proof, suffered from blandness and stringy meat. Much better were the homemade pasta offerings. A wondrous baked lasagna proves deep and rich with meat sauce and béchamel. Even more yummy and faultless were wide ribbons of pappardelle laced with wild boar in the maremma.

Desserts are models of elegance and restraint. Profiteroles may be French, but here they are Profitterol al cioccolato, puff pastries filled with lush Chantilly cream and coated with chocolate.

The wine list is a delightful journey through Italian wine regions and complements the menu as well. The knowledgeable wait staff is happy to chat about the wines included on this list. So why did I see another customer toting in a "nothing-special" bottle of wine? Come on -- with a great wine list, why bring your own?

Charlotte has changed a lot in 20 years. This used to be a small town with only a few choices. But Lorenzi and Hermann are still the canny restaurateurs. Betting on good Italian feed is a safe bet. After all, people like Italian, and with most entrees running in the mid-teens, it's a modest sum to pay for a safe bet.

Eaters Digest

Fri., March 2, Charlotte Marriott City Center and Food Lion Present Empty Bowls 2007, a lunch-time benefit to raise money for Second Harvest Food Bank. The event runs from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. in the Charlotte Marriott City Center on the square downtown. Included are lunch and a hand-made bowl. This event will also feature live music, a silent auction and pottery demonstrations. Tickets are $25 (and include a free 2007 Charlotte Citipass Coupon book). In 2005/2006, Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina distributed 17.5 million pounds of food and essential grocery items to almost 550 hunger feeding agencies as well as to food banks in 13 other counties. For tickets: 704-375-9639, ext. 19.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that 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? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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