Growth. The word is seemingly synonymous with Charlotte. But what does it mean, really? Certainly it means traffic hassles, debates on public transportation, and constant construction—but it’s really about people. Lots and lots of people. And they all have to eat. And so I find myself enduring all the aforementioned annoying spoils of growth to experience the greatest byproduct—more restaurants. In SouthPark, there is a new phase of development going on, especially around the mall, where power centers are popping up almost daily. The one I’m trying to find on a weekend night is Morrison—a mixed-use facility located at the corner of Sharon and Colony. Right smack in the middle of Morrison is Arooji’s, open about three months and the second location of owner Steven Arooji’s namesake restaurant. Arooji nervously looks forward to the day when the center is finally complete and the restaurant will find its crowd. And it won’t come soon enough. The summer has been brutally hot, and big-draw tenants like Barnes & Noble are yet to open.
Once you do discover Arooji’s, you are assaulted with kindness. There is a familial glow to the service. The staff cares about its guests, and it shows. It occurs to me that I could probably order a Big Mac, and the waiter would say, without batting an eye, “Of course, sir, and would you want fries with that?” As it turns out, that would be a big mistake, as Chef Livio Ingenito is turning out exciting Tuscan cuisine in this eighty-seat restaurant. Nestled across from the freshly opened Earth Fare, it has sort of an odd layout, although perfectly comfortable once you’re seated. Just past the main entrance is a long, slender hallway lined with tables that opens up to a large rotunda with vaulted ceilings and huge windows. To the right of the main dining room is the (wine) bar, which has its own entrance and a faux wine cave. Throughout the restaurant, as with the original location, there are cedar cubbies jammed with wines from all over the globe. The specialty is Italian wines, of course, and there are some good ones to sample from the huge wine list by the glass and bottle.
First courses arrive promptly, and there are a few excellent and surprising offerings such as the Sambuce ($9)—ground beef, potatoes, and mozzarella cheese rolled in flour pastry and fried to a light crisp, floating in a spicy, red chili tomato sauce. Funghi di Arooji is also nice; little mushroom caps are filled with mascarpone cheese and roasted in the oven. But our favorite, hands down, is (albeit a little heavy for an antipasti) the Parmigiana di Melanzane ($15). Paper-thin slices of eggplant and cheeses are layered, baked in the oven, and served with al dente spaghetti. With a quick twirl of the fork, the cheese oozes out to meld with the spaghetti and a light marinara. Superb. There are soups ($7) and salads ($8-$19), including a light and delicious Caesar. Ingenito shows his attention to detail here with perfectly dressed greens, the golden emulsion gently clinging to the crisp and ice-cold romaine.
There are eight pasta courses, plus a few specials that include a wide variety of offerings and price points ($13-$23). Classics like Penne alla Vodka and Spaghetti al Pomodoro are satisfactory, but the Rotini alla Ligure is a superstar—house-made pesto and corkscrew pasta with crunchy green beans in a light cream sauce, under which lies thinly sliced potatoes. The latter is an unexpected and completely satisfying addition to an imaginative and well-executed dish. Sadly, though, the Lobster Ravioli doesn’t work. The dish looks attractive enough, with a mushroom sauce and truffle oil that I thought would pair nicely with the lobster. However, after a few bites it’s clear that the ravioli were made elsewhere. And the lobster is tough and stringy. A shame, as the sauce begs for a worthy foil.
Moving to entrées, we’re excited to see a nice selection of seafood, poultry, lamb, and beef. There are nine entrées ($23-$39), including specials. Bistecca alla Fiorentina comes perfectly cooked at medium rare and simply dressed with herb butter, and Saltimbocca alla Romana is deliciously tender and flavorful in a light white wine sauce. The favorite though is the Bronzino All’aqua Pazza, a beautiful fillet of sea bass poached to a delicate flake and finished with olives and capers. The acidity of the olive/caper mixture cuts through the delicate fish brilliantly. To finish, there are coffees and a limited dessert menu. We linger a while over the live music that pulses throughout the restaurant, which is nice tonight, with nylon-string guitar tones and light Italian pop. Much better than one weeknight visit, when we were serenaded with easy-listening covers by a one-man baritone synth master. Whoa. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard his rendition of “We’ve Only Just Begun” over your rotini.
As I leave, I am struck by the notion that Arooji’s is a neighborhood kind of joint. Yank it out of this space and plant it on a street corner in South Philly or Boston’s South End and it would fit in nicely, with café tables out front, half cups of espresso lazing in their saucers, and passionate proprietors who pause from their spirited discussions to greet you with a friendly word. There are plenty of excellent everyday dishes and enticing specials to keep you coming back, if not for dinner, then at least for a glass of wine. Indeed, it could evolve into such a joint here in Charlotte, if only they would finish building the neighborhood.
Arooji’s Wine Room and Ristorante
720 Governor Morrison St., in Morrison
Steven Arooji and his staff provide a warm welcome at this neighborhood-style restaurant, while Chef Livio Ingenito turns out excellent Tuscan fare. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Smoke free. Patio seating.
Jon Luther’s Favorite Dishes
A warm flour pastry stuffed with ground beef, potatoes, and mozzarella cheese. $9.
Parmigiana di Melanzane
Thin slices of eggplant and cheeses baked in the oven and served with spaghetti and a light marinara. $15.
Bronzino All’aqua Pazza
A beautiful fillet of sea bass poached to a delicate flake and finished with olives and capers. The acidity of the olive/caper mixture cut through the delicate fish brilliantly. $29.
Rotini alla Ligure
House-made pesto and corkscrew pasta with crunchy green beans in a light cream sauce with thinly sliced potatoes. $14.