by Emily Williams
images courtesy Zio Restaurant
When you’re in the mood for real, honest, and authentic Italian, one only need look around the city of Charlotte to see how blessed we are with a variety of restaurants from which to choose, including: upscale, casual, or pizza-centric; Northern Italy vs. Sicilian; Americanized vs. Old World Original. It can all be a bit dizzying ... or you can skip the confusion and go the Upstate New York route with fresh, zesty flavors at a reasonable rate looked over by an Italian chef who knows his meat sauces from his marinaras. Zio Casual Italian, just off Providence Road, meets all of this criteria, and owner/chef Jim Consol is making sure it stays real.
A native of Binghamton, New York, Consol has been in the business since 1989, when he took over his uncle Adolph’s locally-famous restaurant, Duff’s Tavern, in Endicott, New York (which he still manages to this day). He set up shop at Zio in 2005 with his wife, Teri, as an homage to his uncle (“Zio” is Italian for “uncle”), wanting to serve the same kind of cuisine here in the South that’s faithful to the Northern original. Consul says he chose the spot in Myers Park because it reminded him of home. “[It had] plenty of quirkiness,” he points out, “but also felt warm and, most importantly, it’s attached to a neighborhood. I really wanted to become the go-to spot for a casual and friendly dinner, and I’d say I achieved that to a large degree, while also making some great friends along the way.”
It certainly caters to a family crowd. On a Friday night, the place is buzzing with chatter as small and large groups of patrons enjoy their meals with their families. Yet, with its dark red painted wood and brick interior, lace curtains, and strings of lights hung from the ceiling, it’s also the ideal place for a quiet, romantic night out, with plenty of small, out-of-the-way tables that provide a more intimate atmosphere. Zio even provides online take-out ordering on their website, offering an on-the-go option for those days when you need your pasta-fix in a hurry.
Freshness is Zio’s primary focus. The restaurant sports an eye-catching herb and vegetable garden near the back of the building, which Consol always invites his patrons to peruse. “When the weather is favorable in the summer, we are using 100 percent of the herbs from our organic garden,” he says. “[It] started about nine years ago, when I purchased a raised bed to grow some herbs for the restaurant. The next year, I added another bed and added some heirloom tomatoes. I knew at that point I wanted to go all in.”
He takes pride in creating dishes using as much on-site ingredients as he can, noting, “We’re influenced by what inspires us and the best ingredients available. We don’t have to import from Italy to find world-class products, as they are available right here in the states. Tomatoes, olive oil, and wine from California rival some of the best anywhere,” he continues. “Local artisans also bring some fabulous products to market, and we’re fortunate to have a network of suppliers here in Charlotte that can source nearly anything.”
The result is satisfyingly decadent, visually exciting, and yet simple in each dish’s execution. A golden beet root salad, topped with creamy, crumbly goat cheese, grape tomatoes, mandarin orange slices, and spiced oven-roasted walnuts, is not only beautiful to look at (those colors!), but a perfectly balanced combination of sweet, bitter, and tangy flavors—and don’t forget, those greens are from the garden just outside. Look for specials like a North Carolina trout in a heart-warming brown butter sauce that features kale chard (again, straight from the garden) and wild rice that features dried cranberries (for a hint of tartness) and slivered almonds (for that pleasing crunch).
For pasta, you can’t really take a wrong turn with the soft warmth of homemade angel hair and meatballs with a thick, traditional sauce that will remind you of every homecooked spaghetti meal your memory can conjure up. Each meal comes served with warm, crusty, flaky Italian toasted bread and a creamy herbed tomato dipping sauce. No matter what you decide, make sure you save room for dessert, because at Zio, it’s practically an imperative.
The restaurant’s chocolate cake recipe was given to Teri Consol by her grandmother. It’s succulently moist and thick, with a whipped creamy topping that could almost be a dessert by itself. If you’re in the mood for something a bit less dense, go with the refreshingly light limoncello cake—citrus flavors are always the perfect end to a heavy Mediterranean meal, and Zio has it down to a science.
While it may be true that Italian eateries are a dime a dozen in any city, it makes a difference when the restaurant is a family affair. There’s particular attention given to the menu and environment that’s difficult to recreate elsewhere. Consol knows this, and while he admits that one “can’t satisfy everyone,” his approach to customer experience is not only “universal” in its method, but unique in his down-to-earth attitude towards the menu. “People want to feel welcome, cared for, and nurtured,” he says. “I think we offer those critical elements that make our guest feel at home. But we also do from-scratch cooking here, which is not typical for most casual restaurants. For the style of food we do, it’s reminiscent of neighborhood restaurants I grew up with in New York: high quality, predictably good food with an owner on site that cares about your experience and loves serving his neighbors.”
Zion Casual Italian Restaurant
116 Middleton Drive | Charlotte