I remember my dad talking many years ago about a very good Italian restaurant in Charlotte, not very far from where we lived or where he worked at Duke Energy. Well, for quite some time those conversations became lost somewhere in the depths of my brain. Then I picked up a book on North Carolina’s local restaurants, diners and barbecue joints that mentions the Italian restaurant on the opening page of its introduction and again with its own entry in a section of eateries along Interstate 77.
The Open Kitchen is the Italian restaurant to which I’m referring, and I owe both my dad Terry and North Carolina lawyer, politician, writer and veteran D.G. Martin thank yous for sharing their fond memories of the place and their recommendations for visiting it myself. It’s just as well that it took me many years to make it there because that delay allowed me to enjoy it with my wife, and I believe great Italian food is best consumed with someone you love. That’s likely why we associate a nice Italian restaurant as a good date or anniversary location. It also helps that Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” with its spaghetti-sharing dogs scene, is etched into many of our brains.
We don’t eat Italian-style food outside the house often. In many cases, I believe you can make good pasta and pizza at home. But unless you’re experienced and trained in making your own special pastas and pizzas from scratch with fresh ingredients, it’s less likely that you make GREAT pasta and pizza at home. And that’s where The Open Kitchen comes in, with the name itself paying tribute to the freedom of customers to see into the kitchen from the front of the restaurant.
When we visited The Open Kitchen on a weeknight, we had to decide which dishes we wanted to order so that we could sample several different offerings. That’s normally our strategy on a first visit to a restaurant. We each order something and then share bites with each other.
On this night, my wife Molly went with a small “Mama K’s Supreme” pizza, a delightful light and buttery crust covered with pepperoni, beef, sausage, salami, peppers, onions and smothered with creamy, gooey cheese. The crust had just the right amount of crunch to it, and every ingredient was clearly fresh, the pizza made when we ordered it. The “small” size yielded eight pieces, enough for us to take a few home and enjoy as leftovers the next day.
I decided to test the basic Lasagne Di Stefano, a less caloric and less fancy version of the restaurant’s melted-cheese-roofed Lasagne Parmigiana, which I hear is fantastic. My lasagna’s noodles were perfectly al dente, the cheese filling was ample, and the meaty sauce on top was plentiful and popped with fresh tomato flavor. I added a green salad and Italian dressing, which was thin and the most wonderfully seasoned Italian I’ve ever tasted. (Though, I must admit I’m historically a ranch dressing kind of foodie.) It was just a basic salad, and it cost me a couple bucks more to add it on, but the ingredients were fresh, and I was satisfied.
A basket of fresh Italian bread and butter arrives at the beginning of your meal. We each enjoyed glasses of sweet tea since it was our first Open Kitchen visit. (We usually go with water for most meals.) And we closed our dinner by sharing a cannoli, a cold pastry filled with creme and chocolate chips, topped with slightly whipped cream, powdered sugar and chocolate sauce. It was a simple yet not-too-heavy closer for the evening.
The Open Kitchen offers a very nice ambiance, with simple checkered tablecloths, small booths or tables, and the sounds of renowned crooners from years gone by. We enjoyed the serenading voices of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and others during our visit. If you’re looking for a little local place for a simple, romantic date, this is a solid choice.
We greatly enjoyed our first experience here. Molly said she felt like she was dining either in New York or somewhere else outside the South. Italian food and locally owned restaurants that serve it are not found in plentiful supply in the South. Sure, you can find a Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Olive Garden or a Maggiano’s Little Italy or something similar in all the big cities, but what’s the fun in that? We always prefer the unique local restaurants, and The Open Kitchen has served the Charlotte region an outstanding dining experience since 1952. Now that we’ve joined the family of Open Kitchen diners, we hope this Charlotte icon is around for many more years.
The Open Kitchen, 1318 West Morehead Street, Charlotte, N.C.