Epicurean Charlotte

Food & Wine Magazine

CHRONICLING THE JOYS OF FOOD AND WINE IN THE CHARLOTTE METROPOLITAN REGION

Zio Recreates the Cozy Atmosphere of a Northeast Italian Restaurant

 

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
704.344.0100
www.ziocharlotte.com

Get Your Fill of Irish Cheer at the Workman’s Friend

by Courtney Matinata
images courtesy The Workman's Friend and Courtney Matinata

As we head into the month of March, our minds can’t help but wander to perfectly poured Guinness pints and traditional Irish entrées. This year, look no further than the beloved, old world feel of The Workman’s Friend for all the delicious offerings of Eire you desire.

Just a mile northeast of Uptown, this cozy establishment sits at the corner of Central and Thomas Avenues amid the eclectic social scene of Plaza Midwood. The team behind Charlotte hotspots like Connolly’s and Tyber Creek brought this unique, Irish-inspired experience to the area in June 2015, and it has been a welcomed addition to the community’s food and drink lineup ever since.

Housed in an 80-plus-year-old building, the site exudes character and was designed specifically with a warm and inviting aura in mind. Owners Kevin Devin, Tommy Timmins, and Maynard Goble based the interior off what they would find back at home in Ireland, filling the space with intimate pub tables, quaint bar stools, and rough exposed walls to elicit a feeling of familiarity, welcoming you to sit back and socialize.

“We want to be that second living room for you,” describes General Manager Doug Dawson. And that’s exactly the sense of security you’ll come to find here. Whether you choose to find comfort at the bar, a dining table, or outside in the beer garden, you’ll be transported to a different time and place by way of various rustic wood accents, interior brick, dimly lit mantles, and old sewing tables. It’s a newly designed space that feels like it’s been in existence forever, which is the exact allure drawing in regulars day in and day out.

If you’re in for a date night, a seat by the fireplace surrounded by candlelight and vintage chandeliers is the ideal spot for a more romantic ambiance. Dropping in for a drink with friends? Head outside to the secluded beer garden for plenty of room to spread out since the bar area can get a bit busy come evening. The patio’s open until 11 p.m. daily, and even consists of a covered area with an additional fireplace that’s perfect for chillier nights.

Being that it’s a pub, you can rest assured that your thirst can be quenched by a satisfying variety of libations while you wait for an open table. The Workman’s Friend adds diversity to the neighborhood’s drink collection by not only offering a range of local craft beers, but a great selection of European brews and more than 20 Irish whiskeys as well. Creative cocktails like the signature Workman’s Friend or the Honey Badger are popular choices, or opt to warm up with the best Irish Coffee around—a blend of local Pure Intentions coffee, brown sugar, Jameson, and fresh cream. You also, of course, can never go wrong with a “pint of plain” (a Guinness), the inspiration behind the restaurant’s identity from Flann O’ Brien’s old Irish poem, “The Workman’s Friend.”

Be sure the food menu doesn’t slip you by while you’re soaking up the setting. When it comes to cuisine, The Workman’s Friend is far from the typical bar experience. Chef Charles Jeffries’ menu is equally on par with the impressionable Irish environment in which you’ll be relaxing. The high-quality fare features classic Irish pub offerings with a Southern influence to create the ultimate comfort food combination for your easy-going evening out.

Upon settling in, ponder the tasty options among the starters’ section. Several of these appetizers are large enough to share among the table, or even have as a meal. We recommend the Sausage Roll, an Irish specialty consisting of house ground sausage in a crispy, golden brown puff pastry—a hearty and substantial pick to kick off your Irish experience.

Next, traditional standbys like Fish and Chips or Shepard’s Pie are featured favorites when it comes to entrées. The fish and chips plate is comprised of cod fried up flawlessly in a light and crispy batter alongside thick-cut seasoned fries served in a workman’s-style brown bag. The minced beef and lamb pie is a perfect colder weather arrangement cooked tender with peas and carrots and topped by creamy mashed potatoes for a beautiful layering effect of flavor. If you’re in search of a vegetarian option, your go-to selection will be the Sweet Potato Gnocchi. This dish is an elaborate collaboration of gnocchi, mushrooms, fennel, and rainbow Swiss chard blended in a sweet, sage brown butter sauce and served up on a thick wood slab aside a warm baguette.

The kitchen understands that you may be seeking some variety, so if you’re not into the traditional fare, salads and cheese plates are up for grabs too, not to mention the raved-about house ground beef burger complete with Kerrygold cheddar cheese. Pair it up with a side of Kerrygold Mac and Cheese, and you may never be the same.

Whatever your selection, you can be certain you’re getting authentic Irish ingredients when the opportunity avails itself, even down to smallest details like the butter that will accompany your bread.

There’s always something to celebrate at The Workman’s Friend, and this spring is certainly no exception. With Saint Patrick’s Day right around the corner, Workman’s Friend will be in full swing with bands, pipers, and plenty of partiers. Take advantage of Irish Night on Thursdays, with Irish beer deals and shot specials, or make a pit stop on the weekend for Sunday Session featuring rotating acoustic music. You can also catch brunch specials both Saturday and Sunday, just make sure to pair your morning meal with a Bloody Jimmy, the restaurant’s delicious take on your standard Bloody Mary using bacon-infused Jameson.

No matter your day of choice or length of stay, great food, delicious drinks, and cozy conversation among friends await you at The Workman’s Friend for a much needed break from your week.


The Workman’s Friend
1531 Central Avenue
Charlotte, NC
980.224.8234
theworkmansfriend.com