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Il Nido Italian Restaurant 

Mama Mia

Strawberry Hill's little Italy When the owners started renovations on their new restaurant in Strawberry Hill Shopping Center in South Charlotte, they noticed a sparrow's nest lodged in the awning. "By the time we opened, the little chicks had hatched. It just seemed right that we would name the restaurant Il Nido, which means "the nest" in Italian. Inside (the restaurant) it is so small, like the nest," said Sandro Lazzeri, son of co-owner Manuela Lazzeri Baron.

Il Nido is a rare restaurant in these days of the million dollar plus upfits, 300-seat, corporate owned behemoths where the food is cooked by number, the bathrooms are deluxe, and seating is prompted by a beeper. This enterprising gem opened on a shoestring budget last June with family members manning both the kitchen and outside. They hoped to develop a cozy atmosphere where no customer would be a stranger the second time and to offer the food mama used to cook, providing mama was Italian, of course.

In other localities, small family-owned and operated European restaurants abound and local residents remain endlessly faithful to these establishments. Here in Charlotte, perhaps due to the immigration patterns here, this kind of small, family-owned restaurant is typically Asian or Latino, not European. But all these restaurants represent the American dream. And according to Sandro Lazzeri, "A dream is more gratifying when you can do it with your family."

The secluded Strawberry Hill Shopping Center boasts charming brick walls and fountains. Il Nido, in the space formerly Rick's Mediterranean Cuisine, features faux finished walls, overhead fans, fresh flowers on linen-clad tables, and a Soprano-esque soundtrack. The kitchen is lively with Italian being bantered about.

Marvin and Manuela Baron and her two sons Sandro and Chris Lazzeri are on hand either in the kitchen or outside. "The restaurant is small. With only 13 tables we tend to remember faces. It's more personal," noted Lazzeri. In these days with ever-changing bank tellers asking for photo IDs of long-standing customers, Il Nido's personalized service is refreshing and welcomed.

No seating beepers here. The neighborhood crowd is greeted at the door as friends. Newcomers are personally welcomed by Manuela Baron who oversees the kitchen and dining room. Although there is no physical barrier shielding diners from the front door, that doesn't seem to bother the crowd at Il Nido.

We settled into a cushy booth, perusing the primarily Italian, but sprinkled with Californian, wine list, eating hot, crusty, housemade bread. The menu is a collection of taste memories if you grew up in an Italian family: penne alla bolognese, parmigiana di melanzane, spaghetti alla carbonara, scaloppine al beneventana, homemade pizza, Italian egg drop soup. Dinner entrees are inclusive of a salad, some with a pasta side, too.

More orders of bread were ushered forth until a coven of sparkling mussels sitting atop a well of marinara pizzazz appeared. These creatures were tender as well as bright tasting. We flourished crusts of bread to lap up the excess sauce. Next up was the thinly sliced bresaola antipasto drizzled with lemon and olive oil that sat prettily upon summer greens.

Entrees proved satisfying, even if not exactly light. The lasagna was equally lush and vibrant with cheese, pasta, marinara, and a mix of ground beef and pork. A veal cutlet was briskly slapped with a deliciously rich marsala sauce. But not everything worked as well. The shrimp entree (gamberi all'aglio) needed more garlic to contrast the mildness of the pasta. But save room and linger over Manuela's magical tiramisu tinged with espresso. This accomplished dessert is better than any you'll find in fancy Italian joints around town.

Il Nido may wrench a few daring patrons from those impersonal, cookie cutter food halls or gazillion dollar upfits by their sheer force of homespun good taste, since this is the kind of place where everyone will know your name and the food is homemade. That's the beauty of it.

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