When it comes to variety in Italian restaurants, the Triangle's bases are pretty well covered. The area boasts several upscale ristoranti and a passel of pizzerias. We have a trattoria, an alimentari, a caffe or two, even an enoteca. Missing from that list, however, has been the osteria -- a term that traditionally refers to a neighborhood tavern with a wine focus and a modest menu, but which has recently been co-opted by a trendy group of upscale restaurants in metropolitan areas.
Ciao! Osteria (121 N. Salem St.; 363-8350), which opened in late September in downtown Apex, is a little of both. The atmosphere walks a tasteful line between urban elegance and small-town charm, from the cheerfully inviting sidewalk tables out front to the oversize black-and-white photos of vintage movie stars on rustic brick walls to the soft lighting and linen-draped tables in the dining room and upstairs bar.
The wine cellar lives up to osteria tradition with an all-Italian list of nearly two dozen wines, most available by the glass. To go with those wines, owner/chef Alex Azzam has created a Mediterranean-accented menu that reflects his background: a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, followed by work in restaurants in Cyprus, Spain, Italy, Pittsburgh and, most recently, Bentley's in Cary. The offering is brief, with just eight entrees and three pasta dishes. But it's varied, so that you could easily opt for the traditional osteria experience (starting with, say, zucchini fritti, followed by chicken sautéed with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes) or the trendy new version (shrimp limoncello, grilled aged rib-eye marinated in rosemary and sage). But when it comes to choosing between tiramisu and crème brûlée for dessert, I'm afraid you're on your own.
If your sweet tooth still isn't satisfied, consider setting your GPS to 201 S. Estes Drive in Chapel Hill, where chocolatier Lorrie Fisher is now selling her Cocoa Fusion truffles at A Southern Season. She's currently offering nine flavors, including Chambord, honey cardamom, bittersweet chocolate caramel sea salt, and seasonal flavors pumpkin cognac and pink peppercorn. Cocoa Fusion doesn't have a retail shop, but Fisher expects to be selling her truffles through other area vendors soon. She also fills custom orders. For details, you can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Still craving chocolate? Tank up and head for Zebulon, where Melodie Hand has opened The Chocolate Works & More (1300A N. Arendell Ave.; 269-0819; www.thechocolateworks.com). There, you can truly relive the kid-in-a-candy-store experience, choosing from a wide assortment of truffles and other confections (including sugar free) sold by the box or by the mix-and-match pound. Hand will even create custom flavor blends, too. The shop is open Monday and Tuesday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Before you drive all the way to Zebulon, though, give a call to make sure that Hand isn't out making deliveries. Her retail shop is new, but she has been selling her wares out of her home-based kitchen to local businesses (whose lucky employees get them as holiday gifts and expressions of appreciation) since 2003. The shop will be closed the last two weeks in November and the first week in December so that she and her son, Anthony Little, can make more than 1,500 pounds of chocolate goodies for holiday orders.