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Magnum Opus 

A hearty salute to Salute

Wine geeks have been flocking to the current hit movie Sideways. In the film, Maya (Virginia Madsen) gives a reflective assessment of wine: "I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer or if it rained... I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle it's going to taste different than if I had opened it any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive; it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity."

Wine and first-rate restaurants share a complexity. Those restaurants, too, evolve and change on a daily basis. This is not true, necessarily, for chain/corporate restaurants which have set, sometimes even laminated, menus and the tedious predictability of an inept, dispassionate lover. No, restaurants which evolve are those created and cultivated by restaurateurs and chefs who celebrate life's charming and, at times, rewarding capriciousness.

One such restaurant is Andrew and Leyla Arcovio's Salute Ristorante, a short walk from the Manor Theater where Sideways has been playing. The Arcovios have been offering Charlotteans their version of Italian cuisine for the past 10 years. Shortly after opening Salute, Wine and Provisions, an Italian gourmet market on Selwyn Avenue during the summer of 1995, Andrew Arcovio told me, "One of the pleasures in food is that it looks beautiful. I have found that the three components of a great meal are delicious food, great wine and a beautiful presentation."

Ten years later, Arcovio could make the same statement about dinner at his restaurant. However, when asked about his concept, he spoke of health. "This cuisine is Cucina sana, cucina magra, which translates to 'Slim and healthy cuisine.'" Arcovio's dedication to health is not new. He started his career with an organic health food store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1970. That store, he admits, was before its time. Today, Arcovio has the advantage of decade-old relationships with local farmers and food distributors to obtain the freshest, non-genetically engineered ingredients possible. In fact, Arcovio is also an active member of Slow Food, USA, which celebrates and encourages the use of artisan, heirloom foods.

Opening this restaurant seems a natural evolution. The 60-seat Salute opened in May 2004 in the space originally occupied by the Park Place Pharmacy, once known for its true-blue Southern lunch counter offerings. Since the pharmacy vacated years ago, the space has been used for other food venues, but during his restaurant's construction, Arcovio revealed the original pharmacy flooring under layers of Pergo and linoleum. Although he has planned for hardwoods, the foot-deep terrazzo floor with its hairline cracks reminded him of those in Italy's restaurants, so he left it. Arcovio, trained as a visual artist, performed the design work using a quiet palate of grey and cherry woodwork.

Leyla Arcovio is the key to the copious (450 bottle) first-class Italian wine list. A native of Peru, she is also fluent in Italian and speaks directly with many of the Italian wineries. Some of the wines on Salute's list are new to Charlotte. Although the price points vary considerably, a sizable number are in the $30 to $40 range. In the retail wine shop on the lower level, the Arcovios have a chef's table which seats 10. Two menus offer five or seven courses, $75 and $95 respectively, exclusive of wine, tax and gratuity.

In the main dining room, the menu is short but focused. A few months ago, Chef Eric Ferguson, a graduate of the culinary program at the Art Institute of Charlotte, took charge of the kitchen after being the sous for five months. Due to the freshness and the availability of ingredients, Salute changes menus about once a month. Soon, the winter roster will feature game birds, grains and rabbit.

We began our exploration with the complimentary amuse-bouche and ended with a soothing palate cleanser. In between, we found much to enjoy. Among the entrees at Salute, my favorite was the flounder, usually mundane, here delightfully sliced into pillowy sections, cooked to crispy perfection and resting on a thatch of Italian beans. The organic veal is fragrant, tender and matched with an earthy porcini risotto. Everyone at the table enjoyed the heady hit of anchovies in the Caesar salad. Gotta love a salad that bites back. The bread crumbs weighed too heavily against the plump clam appetizer, but the roasted beet salad sang with an elemental richness of a well rehearsed choir.

Desserts here are not cloyingly sweet. The cannoli is filled with a not-too-sweet cream which is flecked with fruit. Other desserts include the house made panna cotta and the imported Italian cookies. Entrees range from $16 to $29; salads and appetizers cost about $8.

Ten years is a long time to be in the food business, especially in fickle Charlotte. The life of restaurants seems to parallel Maya's (the Sideways character) judgment on wine: constantly changing and evolving from one day to the next. Today was a good day at Salute.

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: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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