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Mood swings: Domenico's Cucina Italiana 

South Charlotte restaurant sends mixed messages

When Domenico's Cucina Italiana opened last September, some were confused with the name, since a restaurant named Domenico's once operated in Matthews. That Domenico's is closed. This Domenico's is owned by restaurateurs Frank Alessio, who also owns pizzerias and bars in Boone and Hickory, N.C., and Luigi Montesano, co-owner of Luigi's Pizzas of Charlotte. The restaurant is named for Alessio's son.

Domenico's occupies the real estate once held by Cheese Mo'z Pizza, a sports bar. Although a wine cellar has been constructed in the rear of the dining room, much of the interior of the 100-seat restaurant remains the same. The muted room has an exposed ceiling. Low lights glint off the expanse of windows and seating is primarily at tables, although a few booths remain. Montesano says the concept is upscale and casual, but in light of the new economic reality, his prices are "modern."

But not all the prices are "modern." On the wine list are bottles that cost $125. This list, however, is currently under revision, and soon wines by the glass will be offered as well.

The kitchen has strong credentials. Executive Chef Olivio Poda is a native of Sardinia, Italy. With him is a chef familiar to Charlotteans: Ecuadorian native Patricio Campoverde, who was chef in his brother's restaurant Fiamma in Dilworth and also once owned Tria Terra in South Charlotte. Before that, Campoverde worked in Italian restaurants in New York for 17 years and owned La Porqueta, an Italian eatery in Brooklyn.

The starter menu features popular Italian dishes: fried calamari, carpaccio, mussels, and shrimp scampi in a marinara sauce. A Caesar salad is notably comprised of whole romaine leaves flecked with pickled red onion, an invigorating surprise. The only downside was the singular slice of anchovy. House-made mozzarella stars on both the caprese salad as well as the pizzas, which play a significant role here. The La Quattro Stagione is a medium-sized, thin but pliable crust pie dotted with mozzarella, mushrooms, olives, quartered artichokes and a scattering of ham.

Entrées are not aggressive in design: veal piccata, veal with eggplant, prosciutto and fontina cheese, and chicken breast in champagne. Pasta selections are a veritable "best of" on Southern Italian menus: linguine with seafood, penne alla vodka, lasagna, and fettuccine Bolognese. The pastas make a fine flavorful introduction to the Domenico's kitchen. The ravioli entrée is a balance between classic and modern style, with six teabag-sized raviolis filled with a fiendishly delicious house-made ricotta and spinach blend.

For dessert, the kitchen constructs a luscious tiramisu infused with just enough mascarpone cheese to balance the espresso. The kitchen offers four desserts each night.

Service can be effusive at times. This service and the prices — ranging from $13 for spaghetti and $14 for a pizza to the $21 French cut pork chop scarpariello — make Domenico's more upscale than casual. Meanwhile, the setting in a suburban corner shopping center with a relatively non-emotive interior is casual. The message here is mixed. While some of the dishes may be worthy of the price, the setting is not worthy of the tab.

Domenico's Cucina Italiana

8410 Rea Road. 980-819-9723. Lunch hours: Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner hours: Monday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

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