Salvio’s Pizzeria (Cary, NC)

Salvio’s in Cary appears, in nearly all respects, to be a prototypical (e.g. boring) strip-mall pizza joint.  It’s all there – the nondescript signage, the incongruous burger+fries or wings specials, the bare bones interior.  But it just takes one taste of the pies and to know this is someplace special.

The inside features a number of large booths, a few tables, and a couple of large TVs tuned to ESPN.  A recent remodeling has added a tasteful air to the simple accommodations: fresh black paint and new marble table tops are a step up from the old plain wooden booths.  It’s still a counter service restaurant where you get your own drink, so it’s best for take-out or a quick lunch.

The menu covers all of the standards – pizzas, subs, wings, Italian classics.  Since it’s pretty close to where I work, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Salvio’s numerous times, but I’ve only tried the pies.  For a quick meal, you can order pre-made “gourmet” slices from the counter window display, of which there are generally a half-dozen or so choices.  On a recent visit I chose a slice of mozzarella/feta/spinach/tomatoes and a slice of ricotta/parsley, which, with a soda, came to just $5.75.   The slices are enormous – I can’t imagine eating more than two.  The friendly staff pops them back into the oven, and, a few minutes later, you’ve got piping hot pizza delivered to you (on paper plates).

Salvio’s crust is exceptional – thin and super crisp, you can just about pick up a whole piece without it collapsing.  The crust gives a satisfyingly shatter-like crack, and the crumb still has a nice chew to it.  Toppings are generous but don’t stand out for exceptional quality, the way they do at, say, Bella Mia.  Both pieces were very good, but the winner was the one with soft mounds of delicious ricotta.  It was a fantastic lunch.

Among NY style pizza in the area, Salvio’s stands head and shoulders above a place like Fuhgeddaboutit.  In fact, Salvio’s comes in behind only the aforementioned Bella Mia in my Triangle pizza hierarchy.  And compared to your average strip-mall pizza place, it is awesome.

Backyard Bistro (Raleigh, NC)

Backyard Bistro is the closest restaurant to the PNC center in Raleigh, and it’s adjacent to a large hotel.  From these facts alone you might surmise that the menu features burgers, wings, and beer, and that the ambiance caters to those who desire the the closest approximation to being in the stadium for a sporting event, without having to actually purchase tickets.  You’d be correct.  For some, tailgating is the event.

The restaurant was sparsely populated on a recent event-free night at the stadium.  We were seated at a huge booth that was angled for better viewing of an enormous wall of TVs, each tuned to a variety of – you guessed it – sports programming.  In fact, scarcely a free surface in the place remains untouched by sports theming or memorabilia.  With the lights dimmed, the experience felt more like being in a theater than in a restaurant.  Backyard Bistro does have an appealing, and big, outdoor tented area, a large bar, and a section of tables a little farther removed from the wall of sports TVs. They will soon have an Axe Throwing section as another form of entertainment.  But they clearly know their audience: the game comes first; food is more of an afterthought.

Trophy Brewing & Pizza Co. is a new spot in Raleigh that brings a bit of Durham cool to this side of the Triangle.  This place is the epitome of hip: it’s stylish without feeling forced.  Located on a overlooked stretch of Morgan St. heading into downtown, it has promptly become a place to see and be seen, but it functions equally well as just a nice place to hang out with your friends.  Inside, it’s small – almost too small.  It’s tough to even walk behind the bar on account of a couple rustic barrels that line the glass-fronted space where you can expect the best draft beer system installers.  Sure, there are handful of patio tables, and you can get full service at the lovely, expansively deep bar, but the bottom line is this: expect  crowd.    The decor is well executed in yellow ochres and browns.  A cadre of trophies lines a high shelf towards the back – it would be cool if these belonged to the owners (also of downtown’s “Busy Bee”) or to the chefs, but I didn’t inquire.

The menu is expansive and includes pretty much all of what you’d usually find at a large suburban American restaurant.  I ordered a bbq sandwich with regular fries.  My wife ordered a taco salad ($9).  In keeping with the nature of the restaurant, and the general status quo of such establishments, the portions were enormous.  My dinner in particular was a great value at only $7.  Sandwiches are served on light, airy La Farm brioche buns, which is a nice touch.  The meat part of my dish was fine, tender and moist, but the vinegary slaw and odd sauce (served in a little plastic cup on the side) were really underwhelming.  That said, the worst part of my meal were the fries, which were soggy and seemed almost uncooked.  I couldn’t eat them.  My wife reported her entree to be pretty run-of-the mill.

It’s just one visit, to be sure.  The fries might have been an aberration, and the guys over at The Straight Beef liked their burgers just fine.  Still, I doubt that I’d return, even if I had a nearby event to attend.

Toast (Durham, NC)

image courtesy of Mark Petko @ SpoonfedRaleigh

It seems I’m always promoting Durham in these pages, and this post will be no exception.  Toast is to Durham as Neal’s Deli is to Carrboro – a great little sandwich counter.  Raleigh’s lack of such an establishment remains a mystery, and reason enough to search the wider Triangle, as above, for a better sandwich experience.

Toast is an Italian style café serving panini, salads, and soups.  The restaurant occupies a narrow space in the city’s downtown, with small tables inside plus a few more spilling out onto the sidewalk in front.  It’s coffee-shop casual, and, if necessary, you can be in and out very quickly, but it’s charming enough to make it a nice spot to linger and chat.  Just order at the counter and help yourself to a drink.

The menu features plenty of classic Italian flavors.  It also does not appear to have changed much, if any, in the few years since the restaurant opened.  I selected the rapini/sweet Italian sausage/roasted garlic/asiago fresca panino ($6.50) and a cup of the daily soup – spicy lentil with peppers ($2).  My wife chose three crostini + salad ($8.75).  For this price you get two of each of the crostini, which are cut from a baguette into thin slices, toasted, and piled with the toppings.  Her choices were warm goat cheese/local honey/cracked black pepper, pesto/mozzarella/roasted tomato, and garlicky mushrooms/thyme/gorgonzola.  Our food came out promptly.  To sum it up: it was a little disappointing.  Perhaps my expectations were too high; we’d had great food here before.  This time, though, my sandwich was not terribly flavorful.  I couldn’t make out the roasted garlic, the sausage was too mild, and, if such a thing can be said, there was too much cheese.  The bread was nicely crisp and buttery though, and the soup was rich, hearty, and satisfying.  My wife’s crostini had sort of the opposite problem: the flavors were too strong, and there was too much salt.  The clear winner for her was the creamy goat cheese one.  She did report her salad to be deliciously bright, herby, and fresh.

So while we weren’t wowed by Toast this time around, we’ll be back for more.  And here’s hoping for a sandwich spot like this in Raleigh.  For it’s places like these that help make Durham a vibrant community, and that’s why I’ll continue to visit – and celebrate – the Bull City.

The Pit (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

Raleigh’s The Pit has received so much attention over the years that you’d think it was some kind of legendary establishment – the kind of place that makes Raleigh.  In fact, the place is more of a curiosity, in terms of ambiance and popularity, and, unfortunately, not terribly exciting in terms of food.  It’s about as far as you can get from Allen & Son’s – a little shack lost between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, where the meat cooks over wood for most of the night – and still be called a North Carolina barbecue restaurant.

The interior of The Pit is moderately swanky, mostly as a result of the building’s previous incarnation as an upscale steakhouse, but partly, one suspects, as a deliberate branding angle.  It’s not a white tablecloth affair, but the wait staff does wear all black and shuffles to and fro discreetly.  It’s certainly a far cry from your average no-frills bbq joint.  There’s a large bar area with plenty of high tables near the front door, and a couple of more stately dining areas.  The place is huge, but it gets packed, always.  You can take a date here, or your family, but it seems best suited to a business meal.

On a recent lunch visit, I ordered the chopped bbq plate ($7.99), which comes with two sides, a biscuit, and a couple of hushpuppies.  The plate is a much better value than the bbq sandwich, which comes with only one side (and no biscuits or hushpuppies), but costs only $0.40 less.  At dinnertime, the cost of the plate entrée jumps up 50% to $11.99, so beware.  The barbecue itself was rather flavorless, even with a liberal application of sauce at the table.  It lacked smokiness but at least it wasn’t mushy.  I chose collards and cole slaw as my side items.  The collards were pretty bad – too vinegary and not tender enough; the cole slaw was average.  My biscuit was also lackluster.  It was soft and buttery, but it seemed like a frozen biscuit rather than a scratch-made creation.  The Pit does have good sweet potato fries, and some regular fries I tried were also pretty tasty.  But the best part of my meal was the excellent hushpuppies.  I would have traded all of my side items for a basket full of those.

In the end, it was an uninspiring and forgettable meal.  While the value at lunchtime is good – you get a lot of food – I’m not really eager to return.  I have heard that the ribs are very good, but I’ve yet to try them in several visits.  [Although former head chef and NC bbq icon Ed Mitchell defeated Bobby Flay in a rib “throwdown” a couple years ago, he is no longer associated with the restaurant].  So, even with a general lack of good bbq restaurants in Raleigh, The Pit doesn’t really stand out.  I’d rather drive a little ways out to the aforementioned Allen & Son’s, or perhaps to Stephenson’s (near Benson), or The Pig (Chapel Hill) for a more rewarding bbq experience.

Review: Panciuto (Hillsborough, NC)

Hillsborough is a charming little town, a place my wife and I frequently imagine ourselves living in.  It’s small and quaint, but hip enough to boast its own LocoPops and WholeFoods outposts.  A bit more stately than similarly funky Pittsboro, Hillsborough is home to some good restaurants, including at least one outstanding one: Panciuto.

Situated right on the town’s main street, the restaurant is distinguished modestly by a small black awning above the entrance.  Inside, it’s very warm and cozy.  The dining area is rather small, and, together with the diminutive bar (just a few stools) and a long-abandoned fireplace, as well as plenty of white Christmas lights, it makes for an intimate experience.  This is an upscale restaurant, and the space feels elegant, but simple wooden tables and a few light-hearted prints along an exposed brick wall keep the place from seeming too fancy or stuffy.  Even though the tables against the wall are arranged quite closely together, this is a great restaurant for a date or special occasion.  Tiny fluted glasses of prosecco brought to the table shortly after seating reinforce this celebratory sentiment.

The menu generally represents a sort of hybrid of Italian and Southern American cooking.  The restaurant is completely devoted to local ingredients; a box on one side of the menu shows you where just about every component of your meal comes from and the distance it has traveled.  Impressively, these range from about walking distance (herbs) to no more than a couple hundred miles (NC seafood).

Panciuto is only open for dinner, Wednesday – Saturday, from 5:30pm – 8:30pm.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays, small plates are the order of the evening.  Our waiter informed us that, in general, these were appetizer sized portions, and suggested ordering two selections per person.  Noticing the large plates around us, we were skeptical and went with the following 3 items:

  •     Ricotta gnocchi en crema with baby beet greens, sunny duck egg, vincotto, and asparagus ($12)
  •     Pappardelle with grilled pulled pork, shiitake mushrooms, arugula, mustard butter, and parmesan ($17)
  •     Grilled pork chop with buttered polenta, fried green tomatoes, and green-garlic tomato gravy ($16)

While we waited, a small bread selection arrived at the table.  It featured a very slender slice of focaccia (fine) and a super-buttery soft and flaky parker house roll (better).  But these were both trumped by a wedge of something whose composition most closely approximated that of a muffin, although it was sliced as though from a thin tea cake.  The flavor was lemon poppy seed with just the right amount of rosemary.  It was soft, delicate, and heavenly.

Thoughtfully, the waiter offered to bring us the first dish as an “appetizer” followed by the other dishes.  This worked out perfectly.  The gnocchi dish was beautifully presented, with tiny thimble-sized soft pillows of ricotta arranged around the egg, adorned with the cute microgreens.  This was indeed a small dish – there weren’t more than two or three asparagus tips on the whole plate, but the balance of flavors was lovely.  The vincotto brought a complex and subtle sweetness, and the egg contributed a luxurious richness.  We were off to a great start.

The next two dishes were much more substantial, with the pasta in particular being enough to fill a hungry diner.  The pork chop (an ossabaw heritage breed) represented the apotheosis of grilling.  It was maybe a little overdone, but the flavor was exemplary.  It sat on a small bed of gnocchi-shaped polenta balls and was topped by a few thin slices of excellent fried green tomato.  A small amount of fresh tasting tomato sauce tied it all together beautifully.  Almost as good was the pasta dish.  As with the pork chop, the pulled pork in this dish had a terrific smokiness, but in this case the meat could have been just a little more tender.  There was certainly plenty of it, and plenty of rich cheese as well – combined with the excellent homemade noodles, it made for wonderful comfort food on a cool night.  I felt that the shiitake mushrooms, which were barely cooked, didn’t contribute much to the dish.  I did like that the mustard butter and arugula lent a subtle lemony edge, but it wasn’t quite enough to balance out the cheesy creaminess of the dish.  Still, it was delicious, even if the overall flavor profile wasn’t as sophisticated as that of the pork chop entrée.

For dessert, we opted for the “crema di cogne with sugar dusted cornmeal zeppole and soft whipped cream” ($6).  This was basically two doughnuts with sort of a soft chocolate pudding/mousse accompaniment – another great value as it was perfect for two people.  For me, the zeppole were rather average – light and airy, yes, but just fried dough.  The cornmeal wasn’t lost in the dish, but didn’t really elevate it, either.  The crema di cogne was rich and silky, and I really enjoyed the chocolate flavor with what seemed to be just a hint of liquor.

Overall, our dinner at Panciuto was one of the best meals we’ve had in the Triangle, and it’s easy to see why chef Aaron Vandemark was a James Beard award finalist for best chef in the Southeast.  His restaurant delivers superb flavor in a lovely setting (and outstanding value for certain dishes).  So while Hillsborough itself is worth a drive to check out, Panciuto makes the town all the more special.

SEEDS Pie Social

This Sunday from 1pm – 5pm is the 4th annual SEEDS pie social.  This is a great event to benefit the Durham-based urban gardening organization.  For $10 you get four slices of pie from some of the best restaurants in the area.  There are about 30 of them participating this year, including Acme, Guglhupf, and Foster’s Market.  There will be sweet ones, of course, but also pizza pies, and you’ll be able to vote for your favorite slice.  Also part of the event is a skill share auction, where you can bid on learning unique skills from community members.

It’s rain or shine, and you’re encouraged to bring your own plate and fork.  I missed the event last year, but I’m hoping to be able to make it on Sunday, because, really, who doesn’t love eating for a good cause?

Battistella’s (Raleigh, NC)

I’ve been quite excited to try out Battistella’s, the new(ish) Cajun restaurant in downtown Raleigh.  I’d heard great things about their former location (out near Crabtree Mall), and the menu looks enticing.  I finally had the chance for brunch on a recent lazy Sunday morning.

The restaurant is located in Raleigh’s City Market, a historic area that has charm but has seemed to me to have always struggled to fulfill its potential.  The cobblestone streets are lovely, sure, but, until recently, the lack of exciting tenants has rendered the area more of a curiosity than a destination.  In the past few years, the additions of the Epona & Oak boutique, Benelux Cafe, Troy Mezze Lounge, and now Battistella’s offers hope for revitalization.

The inside of the restaurant is divided into two spaces – one primarily occupied by the bar, the other by the small dining area.  Despite its size, the ambience was not especially cozy, though I imagine at night it could be rather charming.  The restaurant is clearly aiming to capture the mystique of New Orleans, with large pictures of that city along the artfully decrepit walls, blues music on the radio, and an interesting chandelier lending intrigue to the space.  There are a few cafe tables out on the sidewalk as well.  At 12:30pm, there weren’t many people in the place, and it oddly felt as if lunch service was wrapping up.

The menu for brunch was a bit different than what’s posted on their website.  The choices that day were much more limited, with quite a few of the starters and entrees, and all of the side items, missing or different.  The prices were also off by a dollar here and there.  A chalkboard lists the day’s specials, and another one shows off an impressive list of local farms that provide many of the restaurant’s ingredients.  I ordered the pain perdu ($10) and my wife chose the “Blount St. Benedict” ($12).  Both were very nicely presented.  Mine was an elegant stack of four large bread slices, a large hunk of split andouille sausage, and a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream.  It was good french toast, if not excellent.  The sausage was very good, although spicier in some spots than others.  I loved the use of cane syrup.  This was my first experience with it, and with luck not my last.  It offered a darker, more complex flavor than maple syrup – like a cross between that and molasses.  Unfortunately there was just too much of it, and the whole dish was too sweet as a result.  I didn’t try much of my wife’s eggs benedict dish, except for a few bites of outstanding tasso ham.

While it wasn’t the most exciting meal ever, and it might not be my first choice for Sunday brunch in Raleigh, I definitely want to return and try more of the menu.  The biscuits in particular looked fabulous, and I’ve got to try a poboy or some beignets.   Battistella’s certainly fills a void in Raleigh’s dining scene, and brings some upscale flavor to City Market, so here’s wishing them great success.

Daisy Cakes (Durham, NC)

If you love eating, as I do, you’ve got to love Durham!  There’s so much good food to be had in the Bull City, from Mexican to burgers to fine dining, and, more recently, to excellent baked goods.  First there was Scratch, which opened last year, and operated without peer in the Triangle until the recent opening of  Daisy Cakes, just a few short blocks away!  While not entirely new to the scene – Daisy Cakes operated out of a sleek airstream trailer over the past few years – their new cafe has allowed the business to really blossom.

Situated on Foster St. near the farmer’s market, the place was slam packed on a recent Saturday morning.  The interior of the restaurant is quite narrow, with very limited seating.  Lines form quickly, and finding a table is tricky, although there are a few scattered just outside the front door.  The space features whitewashed brick walls and is equally as charming as Scratch: where the latter  is subtly sleek, Daisy Cakes is undeniably cute.

Like at Scratch, it’s really hard to decide what to order at Daisy Cakes.  They have a bountiful array of pastry and sweet choices, sure, but also a tempting menu of savory sandwiches and light entrees.  The menu is ambitious, but perhaps not quite as creative as Scratch’s.  I went with the carnitas hash ($8.95) plus a strawberry “pop’t art” ($1.95).  My wife chose the day’s omelette (roasted tomato, spinach, cheese, $7.50, served with toast and fruit) and a housemade chai tea ($3.25).

My carnitas hash was a substantial dish, served with two unexpected slices of toast.  It was a bit underseasoned, and I would have liked some more onion in with the potatoes, but it came with two nice fried eggs on top and was plenty tasty overall.  The “pop’t art” was outstanding: a circular slightly sweet crust filled with just the right amount of bright strawberry jam.  My wife’s omelette was also good, if not great.  But the chai tea she ordered was incredible – served in a very funky mug with a sprinkling of cocoa powder on top, it was spicy, creamy, and just perfect.  I also got to try some of their well-regarded almond cream brioche.  It was served as a massive thick slice with a little fruit on the side.  It was very good, moist and decadent, but I probably wouldn’t order it myself.

If you’re heading to Durham and can’t decide between Scratch or Daisy Cakes, you could just flip a coin.  For me, until I try more of the Daisy Cakes menu, including their renowned cupcakes, I’d give the slight edge to Scratch.  But at either place, you’re sure to get lovingly crafted food in a super charming setting.  As for me, I’m eager to go back for more of both.  As much as we love Durham, it’s sure to be sooner rather than later!

Little Hen (Holly Springs, NC)

Little Hen is a new restaurant in Holly Springs that looks very promising.  According to this post over at LunchBoySays, the chefs are bringing a true farm-to-table approach to the food, featuring local, sustainable meats and produce almost exclusively.  The menu will change frequently, and they plan to start a Sunday brunch service in the near future.  For now, it’s dinner only (Tuesday – Saturday).

I’m very excited to try it out!

 

Neal’s Deli (Carrboro, NC)

images courtesy of This Paper Ship

Neal’s Deli in Carrboro is the perfect little lunch counter, and one of the best places for a sandwich in the Triangle.  While particularly well regarded for their classic deli sandwiches that incorporate their house made pastrami and corned beef, Neal’s also offers a range of other lunch and breakfast options, including biscuits that I’ve heard are delicious.

It’s a tiny place, better suited for take-out than a sit-down meal, although there are a handful of tables and bar stools at the window.  A small deli case showcases seasonal side dishes, like a roasted beet salad, but the main attraction here is the sandwiches.

I went with the smoked turkey ($7.50) and my wife chose the reuben ($8.50).  My sandwich featured some wonderfully citrusy crushed avocado and nice crispy bacon.  It was a winning combination despite some unremarkable, unsmoky sliced turkey meat.  The reuben was the better choice.  It was hot, juicy, and sweet, and piled high with excellent corned beef.

Neal’s offers simple sandwiches done right.  You wouldn’t think that would be such a hard thing to find, would you?  Durham, of course, has Toast, with its great panini, but Raleigh could really use a great little sandwich shop like these.  One can always hope.