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Perhaps it's Fra-talian? 

Dishes from three Mediterranean cuisines opens in south Charlotte

What is authentic cuisine?

For food to garner the authentic "moniker," should all the ingredients be imported (since locally grown produce -- even the same product -- may vary in taste and complexity)? Should fish be served with heads on or should fish noggins be discretely lopped off for the squeamish? Should a chef be a native and trained in that region for a restaurant's dishes to be authentic or do diners reading La Gazzetta dello Sport, a popular Milanese sports paper, imbue authenticity? Or should we just sit back and enjoy whatever tastes good?

Taste and the dining experience are what make a restaurant. But if you are looking for "authentic" dishes, an airfare may factor into the equation -- although that's not always the case.

Recently Tria Terra, Restaurant, Tapas, & Bar: Authentic Cuisine from Italy, Spain and France opened in south Charlotte. The co-owners, and brothers-in-law, Patricio Campoverde and Esteban Vintimilla, are both native Ecuadorians. Although they have only been in Charlotte one year and their restaurant opened in early spring, many Charlotteans are already familiar with their food.

Campoverde was a chef at his brother's restaurant, Fiamma in Dilworth, when it opened last year. Before that, he had worked in Italian restaurants in New York for 17 years and owned La Porqueta, an Italian eatery in Brooklyn. Campoverde has a second brother who currently owns La Paella, a Spanish restaurant in Manhattan. Partner Vintimilla worked for 16 years in New York, managing such upscale restaurants as Coco Pazza, a renowned Tuscan restaurant that once had plans to open a store in Charlotte.

Campoverde and Vintimilla came to Charlotte for the opportunity. "New York is tough -- there's a lot of restaurant competition in Manhattan," Vintimilla says. The partners wanted to open this concept in New York, but expense made them look South. Charlotte seemed ripe for their three-land concept, which as Vintimilla noted only lacks "Greek and Lebanese" to be truly Mediterranean.

What is common among Mediterranean cuisines are the fresh and uncomplicated appetizers. This is especially true of Spanish tapas, which are becoming synonymous with appetizers. Spanish ingredients such as smoky hot or sweet pimentón (paprika), fired roasted piquillo peppers and cured chorizo (not the spicier, softer Mexican variety) have those easy-to-love flavors that have added to the rising popularity of Spanish cuisine nationally. Add to this the fun of ordering a number of small plate dishes to taste and you have the quintessential cuisine du jour.

Tria Terra plays on this popularity by having the tapas selection dominate the starter menu, offering the usual roundup of tapas dishes -- patatas bravas, stuffed peppers with goat cheese, sautéed chorizo, and shrimp wrapped in bacon -- and also yields many other delights. Nothing quite screams summer and dining al fresco than boquerones, marinated filets of Spanish anchovies. Anchovies have that love-them-or-hate-them appeal. Most anchovies found in the United States are salt-preserved, tinned in oil and wind up in Caesar salads, stuffed into olives or dotted on pizzas. Fresh anchovies, on the other hand, are the kind enjoyed in Mediterranean cultures. Boquerones, or white anchovies, still have that silver flash of a sea boil being netted and the ones served at Tria were scrumptious.

Less appealing were the fried cod and potato croquettes and the fried breaded asparagus encircled with smoked salmon. Sure everyone fries, but I prefer the straightforward taste of the garlicky piquillo peppers and the tortilla Española, a Spanish comfort food of potatoes and eggs. This dish, however, reduced my friend of French descent to contemplative silence which ended with the pronouncement, "I don't like this."

Tria's salads were brilliantly cast: alternating slices of red and golden beets with haricot vert, asparagus, and goat cheese; arugula with gorgonzola, caramelized walnuts and Bosc pears; and arugula with toasted sunflower seeds and a blood orange vinaigrette.

Entrees range from the French steak au poivre to the Italian black linguini with shrimp, clams, calamari, crab and mussels in a tomato sauce. But the show stoppers are the paellas: a la Basque, Catalana and Marinera. These are offered with a two person minimum. It's evident in Campoverde's Basque paella, creatively accessorized with rings of calamari, bits of imported chorizo, sausage and langostino, slices of chicken and flecked with tiny shrimp, clams and mussels, his love for the Spanish component of the menu.

Vintimilla said 90 percent of the Spanish ingredients are imported from Spain, while all items are house made: breads and pastas to desserts. The latter includes a sensational summery creation of panna cotta, and a richly rewarding crema Catalana.

The interior of Tria Terra tries hard to be rustic European, and is quaint, although dark. The soundtrack needs a revisit, though. When was the last time you heard ABBA and Celine Dion during the same course?

Tria Terra is exactly the kind of restaurant most neighborhoods should want: a small mom-and--pop (or brother-and-brother in this case) operation where the owners are present, prices are affordable (entrees range from $12.50 to $18.50), the food is consistently well-executed, the service is professional, and the atmosphere is low-key. Perhaps not all dishes ring true, but it more than compensates by being marvelously delicious.

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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