Italian specialties you'd expect, with ample rewards

CorrespondentFebruary 4, 2011 

  • 411 Fayetteville St., Raleigh

    838-8700

    www.lavoltarestaurant.com

    Cuisine: Italian

    Rating:

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: upscale casual, with a view of Fayetteville Street Plaza

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: friendly and attentive

    Recommended: eggplant rollatini, orecchiette dell' amore, grouper livornese, layer cakes

    Open: Lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

If you like Italian food and you've lived in the area for a while, chances are you've eaten in a restaurant owned by a Longo or a Doria.

Mario and Lucia Longo, and Lucia's brother Vincenzo "Vinnie" Doria, have owned at least a dozen establishments, scattered about the Triangle from Durham to Cary to North Raleigh, and covering the culinary spectrum from pizzeria to ristorante. Bella Napoli, Ristorante Lucia, Casa Doria and most of the others are now just memories, though Vic's Ristorante Italiano in City Market continues to flourish after more than a decade.

For their latest venture, just a few blocks from Vic's, the families have joined forces. The Longos opened La Volta in May in the Progress Energy building, and installed Vinnie Doria as executive chef. The result, fittingly enough, straddles the line between casual eatery and fine dining establishment.

Lucia Longo is as amiable a hostess as ever, and is now joined by son Michael in setting a tone that matches the upscale casual setting. The chef follows suit with a menu that offers everything from brick oven pizzas to filet mignon Marsala. While his offering contains few surprises, it does offer ample rewards.

Doria's fans will be pleased to see "Mama's" meatballs among the antipasti listings - Mama being family matriarch Anna Doria, who created the recipe for these fine-textured, subtly seasoned spheres, as well as the rustic tomato ragu that sets them off.

Calamari are as delicately breaded as you'd expect from a seasoned chef, too, though they can on occasion be a bit chewy. Sautéed P.E.I. mussels, available in white wine sauce or the family recipe marinara, are a more reliable option. Better still are melanzani rollatini, which feature ribbon-thin slices of eggplant wrapped around a creamy four-cheese filling, and blanketed with more of that addictive ragu.

Orecchiette dell' amore is a popular pasta option, and deservedly so. Pairing the ear-shaped pasta with sautéed broccoli rabe and Italian sausage in a white wine garlic sauce, the dish strikes a gratifying balance between hearty and refreshingly light.

Veal scaloppine are tender in vitello Marsala, and the mushroom-studded sauce is so richly flavorful that, when the sauce breaks, you polish it off anyway. Of course, if broken sauces put you off, you can always opt for a sturdy veal or chicken parmigiana.

Doria's fans will be pleased to find that his penchant for seafood is still evident in a generous selection that ranges from shrimp fra diavolo to grilled salmon, and is supplemented by one or two nightly fish specials.

Risotto alla pescatora comes close to the mark, scoring with creamy, saffron-scented pearls of rice and properly cooked jumbo shrimp and sea scallops, and marred only by a return visit from those chewy squid. Grouper livornese, on the other hand, scores a bull's-eye with expertly cooked fish, Kalamata olives and capers in a light marinara sauce, served over al dente linguine.

La Volta's name means "the vault," a tribute to the bank that previously occupied the space - more specifically, the bank vault that the owners have converted into a combination wine cellar and private dining room. The cellar is well-stocked with an Italian-leaning (and reasonably priced) selection, including two dozen labels available by the glass. The intimate space would make an excellent setting for a romantic dinner, and though it's surely booked for Valentine's Day, its charms make a strong case for proposing an alternative date for celebrating with your sweetheart.

Lucia Longo is justifiably proud of her homemade layer cakes. You can generally count on finding her signature limoncello cake on the pastry tray, along with a rotating selection of four or five liqueur-splashed variations on the theme (including a delightful maraschino-rum-spiked red velvet cake she recently offered, calling it "an experiment." I'd say the experiment bears repeating).

Mind you, these are not elaborate pastry chef creations, but rather the sort of unassuming cakes you might find at an Italian family reunion potluck. Only in this case, it's the reunion of two Italian families who just happen to have marinara sauce running through their veins.

ggcox@bellsouth.net

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