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It's A Mario 

The pizza's fine, but the wings really fly

Anything named Mario has a certain cachet, especially if it's an Italian restaurant. One almost expects a red-hatted, mustachioed, height-challenged plumber to be the host and to have to listen to the protracted Super Mario Brothers Overworld Theme music over and over again.

But Mario's Pizza and Italian Restaurant is not the overworld; however, folks do come in droves. This may be due, in part, to the long history Mario's has with the Matthews community. Owner John Fisichello opened the first Mario's Pizzeria in 1986 in the East Town Shopping Center at the corner of Sharon Amity and WT Harris, but a few years later he opened a second location in Matthews Festival Shopping Center on Independence Boulevard. Fisichello left the East Charlotte location for a small strip center near Matthews in the burgeoning south suburbs near Union County in 1995. In 1996, he sold the Independence location. All of these spots had been small pizzerias. Last January, Fisichello moved to the end of the shopping center and opened a 100-seat, 4,300-square-foot restaurant.

At the new restaurant, the patio lacks ambience and is situated between the front windows and the vast parking lot. But the atmosphere seems the least of concerns to the diners: Children stuff themselves with garlic knots and pizza slices while parents chat with neighboring tables. Mario's is a family place. Inside are multiple televisions, plug-ins for PowerPoint presentations, booths, and tables.

Mario's has a family of its own. Manager Larry Wright reported many employees have been there over 10 years and a few had been there almost since the beginning. Last week, Mario's started table service somewhat extemporaneously, and even though most of the servers are inexperienced teenagers (and female), they worked seamlessly together with broad smiles. Mario's is a team operation.

Since moving to an expanded place, the menu has expanded as well. Now Fisichello offers subs, pastas, calzones and entrees such as veal parmesan. Wright said the recipes were "from our families."

But the focus is on the pizza. Pizza crusts are a personal preference the same way Dunkin' and Krispy are. It begins with the place one first fell in love with pizza, and for me that was New York City, so I hold pizza crusts to a supple but not doughy standard. The classic New York pizza has an elastic, smoky-tasting crust which is blistered only if cooked in a coal oven, smooth if cooked in a gas oven, and covered with mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce. New York City street pizzas, which are the only pizzas some out-of-towners ever taste in the City, are mass produced and so greasy the pepperoni and cheese will slide right off if the pizza is not folded before eaten.

The pizzas at Mario's are in the ordinary New York category with fair crusts - they're stone cooked, which does add to the appeal. The marinara, though, does not sparkle. Nevertheless, Fisichello can't keep enough drivers to supply all the residents who have become fans of his pizza. The plus side is his pizzas aren't the formulaic chain pizza. The dough is made from scratch and is pulled and baked on site.

However, the best food choice at Mario's has nothing to do with pizza. What you should dive in for are the sensational wings -- which isn't surprising given the upper New York State connections: Fisichello went to SUNY, and another manager, Dave Spinelli, who supplied the wing recipe, is from Rochester. The large chicken wings (and drums) bear a totally surprising sauce. Mario's has two levels of sauce: hot and mild. But even the mild has enough for a kick, though not enough to overtake the chicken.

Salads are crisp and chilled, but the pasta dishes suffer. Broad ribbons of lasagna weave through layers of the uneventful combination of meat, cheese and sauce. Overly breaded eggplant parmesan is too cheesy. The quantity of food is excessive. Entree specials include a plate of pasta marinara, a salad and garlic knots.

What charms you about Mario's is the friendliness of the servers, their team spirit approach to the dining room, and their attentiveness to the children. Mario's is not the place to save a princess, but it is a place to take a little prince or princess for cheesy fun.

Eaters' Digest
Local restaurateurs are once again talking about serving hamburgers cooked rare. For those who don't remember the 1990s, it was a time spiked with outbreaks of E Coli linked to undercooked hamburger meat. In some cases, people died; particularly vulnerable were small children. The consequence of these deaths were rigorous sanitation standards, which in North Carolina included the requirement that "ground beef and foods containing ground beef shall be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 155° F (68° C)." (From the NC Section .2600: Sanitation of Restaurants and Other Food Handling Establishments, 15A NCAC 18A .2609, paragraph 3.) Hence, no more burgers served rare.

Bill Hardister of the Mecklenburg County Health Department explains that the problem is grinding. The outside could be contaminated and then mixed inside, which, if served rare, is not heated at a high enough temperature to kill the bacteria. When I asked Hardister why some local places told me they could serve chopped steak rare, he noted they could not. These restaurants still need to abide to the state's internal temperature requirement of 155 degrees.

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. To contact Tricia via email:

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