For more than a decade, the name Cinelli has been locally synonymous with Italian cuisine.
Or, more precisely, Italian-American cuisine. Brothers Gianni, Gaitano and Peter Cinelli have, individually or as partners, owned a dozen or so restaurants over that period, scattered all over the Triangle. Their ventures have covered the spectrum from pizzeria to fine dining establishment, but theyve all shared roots in the New York Italian cuisine that the brothers brought with them when they moved here in the late 90s.
With the opening of Vivo in February, Gianni Cinelli aims to shake things up a bit.
This time, I want to cook like we did in Italy, before we came to America, Cinelli says. I want to cook with whats on hand, with the seasons.
To that end, hes shopping more at farmers markets and cooking nearly everything from scratch. That includes fresh mozzarella, which is made daily and takes a star turn in lightly breaded fried mozzarella an appetizer offering that is to ordinary mozzarella sticks as Parmigiano-Reggiano is to Velveeta.
The mozzarella occasionally turns up in a featured special, too - baked with eggplant and house-made marinara in melanzana al forno, say, or blended with ricotta, mascarpone and fresh herbs as a filling for stuffed portobellos.
It pays to check the specials board, where Cinelli celebrates the local harvest and his rejuvenated passion for traditional Italian ways of cooking. In the spring, that meant the likes of vegetarian lasagna with homemade noodles, and fresh escarole soup with cannellini beans.
More recently, the chef is showcasing local watermelon in a balsamic-dressed salad with organic baby arugula, quick-pickled onions and feta cheese. Hes stuffing long-stemmed artichokes with goat cheese and serving them in lemon butter sauce studded with pancetta.
He pounds flank steaks very thin and transforms them into cheese- and herb-stuffed braciole, which he then simmers with Italian sausages and plum tomatoes, and serves over pappardelle pasta.
The regular menu has an Old World slant, too, though longtime fans will be happy to know that Cinelli hasnt entirely jettisoned the Italian-American fare that is the foundation of the familys reputation.
In Italy, meatballs are a special occasion dish, the chef notes, but in America we expect a restaurant to have them available every day. So I make them every day. From scratch. And if you want something thats not on the menu, well make it if we have the ingredients.
No special request is necessary for linguine with white clam sauce, which showcases North Carolina Littlenecks and al dente pasta. Or for chicken scarpariello, a rustic medley of roasted potatoes and pan-seared nuggets of boneless bird in a balsamic reduction punctuated with rosemary and pepperoncini.
Cioppino Terracina is named for the Italian coastal town where the Cinellis have a summer home. While this variation wont displace the San Francisco original on the list of the worlds great seafood stews, it will certainly satisfy a craving for a taste of the sea.
A Cinelli restaurant without pizza would be unthinkable, and Vivos thin, blistery-crusted pies dont disappoint. Just dont plan on sharing a gargantuan family-size pizza. Theyre only offered as 12-inch pizzette here a size that makes for a consistently superior crust (and, not coincidentally, is favored by the best old-school pizzerias).
As a bonus, ordering two or three small pizzas allows you to try different combinations. The classic margherita (theres that fresh mozzarella again) is a must. Beyond that, youre on your own.
Dessert? We make everything but the cannoli shells, the affable Cinelli will tell you when he makes one of his frequent rounds of the dining room. Hes especially proud of his lemon ricotta cheesecake, and rightly so.
Unfortunately, no amount of circulating about the dining room is a sufficient safety net for a wait staff that is generally friendly but inconsistent. Pacing problems in particular I encountered long lag times between courses on two separate occasions are more common than they should be six months after opening.
The atmosphere is casual, with a smattering of pictures and bric-a-brac giving an Italian accent to a space that retains many of the underlying decor elements of Bear Rock Café, the sandwich shop that was a former tenant.
Just inside the entrance, hanging on a front wall, a large framed black-and-white photograph overlooks the dining room. Its a family portrait, taken outdoors a good half century ago, judging by the vintage of the cars in the background.
Ask Gianni Cinelli about the picture, and hell confirm that it was taken in 1965, just as his family was immigrating to New York from Italy.
Im the bambino, he says, indicating the baby in his mothers arms. Thats my dad next to her, with two of my brothers. My other two siblings were born later, in America.
The picture is a touching representation of Gianni Cinellis heritage, of course, but it also neatly sums up his evolving culinary philosophy: Sometimes its a good idea to take a look back at where weve come from.
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