You could say marinara sauce runs through my veins – at least figuratively.
I’m one-quarter Italian by way of Sicily. My great-grandparents immigrated to the United States via Ellis Island – where, per family lore, their last name was shortened. It’s possible my byline would read “Spatafora” if it wasn’t for a last-minute chop from Ellis Island officials.
Though I’m not claiming to be an expert in Italian food, I’m anti-Olive Garden enough to know what’s real and what’s not. I had their Tour of Italy one time and it had all the joy of backpacking through a crowded mall parking lot.
I try to meet in the middle with my choices – fare that is not always traditional but still satisfying. I’m not going to chastise you for wanting a sloppy meatball sub, even if it’s not part of the Italian food canon.
My own grandfather used to prefer Chef Boyardee ravioli instead of his mother’s – my great-grandmother Spatafora’s – authentic cuisine, which drove her crazy.
Italian cuisine continues to evolve as it’s influenced by American cuisine and changing palates.
Here’s what you should eat that’s an empty Chef Boyardee can’s throw away from what we call traditional.
Favorite Bruschetta – Portofino’s at the Arboretum.
The traditional choice to the more Americanized – and still highly delicious – garlic bread, Bruschetta makes you feel good about yourself afterwards; you had mozzarella cheese, you had basil — which is a vegetable, right? — and it was all drizzled in balsamic vinaigrette. Points for you.
Portofino’s at the Arboretum: 8128 Providence Road #100, Charlotte; 704-542-9911. Has four locations in Charlotte.
— Portofino’s (@PortofinosUS) May 27, 2015
Favorite Lightly-Sauced Gnocchi – Luce.
These potato dumplings are tossed in a light tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. They are soft and filling without being heavy.
Luce, 214 North Tryon Street, Suite J, Charlotte; 704-344-9222.
Favorite Grotesquely-Stuffed Lasagna – Arooji’s.
If you care nothing about your cholesterol levels or whether you’ll slip into a coma after dinner, this is the Italian-American monolith for you. The Lasagna Alla Emiliana is stuffed baked layers of beef, pasta, mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Have your emergency contact on stand-by.
Arooji’s Italian Ristorante, 5349 Ballantyne Commons Parkway, Charlotte; 704-845-5244.
Favorite House-made Salad – Portofino’s at the Arboretum.
I know, I like this place. They make their own in-house tomato basil dressing you can sop up with a piece of warm, crusty bread. Eat that cucumber slice even though your Ziti Sorentina has arrived. It’s just as well – the tradition in Italy is to eat your salad after the entrée.
Portofino’s at the Arboretum, 8128 Providence Road #100, Charlotte; 704-542-9911.
Favorite Cannoli – Mario’s Pizza.
This casual joint may be in suburban Matthews, but its chocolate-chip sprinkled cannoli cream comes closest to the kind I enjoy on my trips to NYC. It’s fresh and thick without being heavy.
If you’re feeling super lazy, order it for delivery. You’ll need to order three cannoli creams to meet the $8 delivery minimum. Not that I’ve done this before.
Mario’s Pizza, 2945 Matthews-Weddington Road, Matthews; 704-847-4884.
Photos: Diedra Laird/Charlotte Observer; Heather Johnson/Charlotte Observer; Mario’s Pizza Facebook.
Joanne Spataro @lookitsjoanne