Helen Schwab

Aqua e Vino: fresh and bright

An amuse bouche of scallop and bright risotto.
An amuse bouche of scallop and bright risotto. HELEN SCHWAB

The food: Chef Gabriele Grigolon has knocked around Charlotte since 2005, when Augusto Conte brought him in to work on the now-defunct Il Posto. Before, he’d worked with rock stars (Alain Ducasse) and in rock-star milieus (Monaco), and had even done pastry. He became executive chef at Luce and for the restaurant group, or you may remember him from a stint with Firenze.

But now he’s doing his own thing, and quite a lovely thing it is. Think Italian, then think lush and bold and varied. The April menu begins with bread and tomatoes and burrata (cream-filled mozzarella, essentially) and wends its way through grilled Spanish octopus with red onion and crunchy capers, fresh orecchiette (“little ears” of pasta) with sauteed rapini; rack of lamb scottaditto (charmingly, this means “burned fingers,” as in, “you can’t keep your hands off long enough to keep from ...”); sauteed Alaskan halibut with braised fennel and kalamata olives; and beyond. Each of these fared beautifully, with the nod going, perhaps, to the lamb for its simplicity and perfect medium-rareness. (Rarity? Indeed.)

The look: Nestled into the former Il Nido (“nest” in Italian), this has been brightly renovated. A long table now claims the center, from which breads (a fine focaccia, crunchy grissini and simple loaves) and water are served. Lighting’s warm and while seating is a bit close, that can add to the warmth. (Cross your fingers that you are seated amid a caramelized flow of languages: Italian, Spanish, heavily accented English made our dinner even more reminiscent of an evening in Florence or Rome.)

The service: Still a little chaotic, not surprising in a tiny place that’s added Grigolon fans to an already-Italian-loving neighborhood base. Seating can be slow and waiting is a mite awkward in the space, so there are a few things to be worked out. But once we had ordered, all smoothed out, and the chef toured the dining room occasionally, taking his time and clearly adequately supported in the kitchen. I expect interactive niceties – from the kitchen sending out pre-dinner tidbits to diners offering a bit of wine they’d brought to staff – will flower.

The details: 4219 Providence Road (at Strawberry Hill); 704-364-4445; dinner only (main dishes about $16-$32), Monday-Saturday.