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Cucina LaMantia opens in Greenville to rave review

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Panelle is a common street/​food vendor food on the streets of Palermo, Sicily.

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BY CHRISTINA RUOTOLO The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Merry Christmas, Hot Dish readers. I hope everyone had a safe and festive day yesterday. When I think of Christmas, I always think of my family sitting around a big dining room table with enormous bowls of food as far as the eye can see. My Italian father loved to cook, and I grew up on many Italian staples like pasta, big fat meatballs, anything topped with mozzarella cheese, succulent veal and dozens of other yummy dishes the Italians are known for. The glorious food was like the unique and tailored ornaments on the tree and the star on top was the feeling you got when you were surrounded by family. In Italy, everyone is family. What if I told you that this type of feeling and meal exists, and it is part of the new restaurant in Greenville that has everyone talking — Cucina LaMantia Sicilian Ristorante located at 3700 S. Memorial Drive behind the Pizza Inn?

They have been open for just a few shorts weeks and already have gained a healthy following of fans just as big and delicious as their food. Owners and New Jersey transplants to the south Charlie and Lauren LaMantia are warm, welcoming and know Italian. Charlie has been in the food industry for over 25 years with his family roots from Sicily, Italy. He came down to North Carolina with Lauren in early 2018 from a friend’s recommendation and their dreams of opening a restaurant started to become a reality. His restaurant is set up a bit differently from other restaurants in Greenville, allowing customers to enjoy an unhurried dinner with friends and family, enjoying not one but fourteen courses. Yes, that’s what I said, fourteen. I asked Charlie why fourteen — is this a magic or lucky Italian number we need to know or is there a personal significance to the amount? 

“My favorite number is 13, then I added a dessert to make it 14!” he said.

The rules at Cucina LaMantia are simple. Reservations only, one seating per night with fourteen courses from appetizers to dessert served. You can bring your own wine and/​or beer with no additional corkage fee or enjoy sweet or unsweet iced tea or water with your meal. The cost is $42 per person plus tax and gratuities. With only one seating, all tables or large parties can feel like one big family coming together for a holiday meal and not feel rushed.

In Italy, a meal is a several-hour affair and here the average mealtime is about three hours from start to finish. That’s a great amount of time for those wanting time away from baby and children or the new couple’s first date. You can learn a lot about a person in three hours, or maybe you want to enjoy a meal with family where the food trumps your cellphone and television (even though you will still want to check in on Facebook and post a few pictures so your friends will be jealous). Once you come in and find your seat, the experience begins, starting with the Italian music pumping through the speakers beside walls lined with family photos. Lauren comes out and introduces herself and the dinner begins. Open up your bottle of wine or pour a glass of tea and start enjoying course number one, the Olive Medley. This appetizer is served on a carving board and includes a bowl of marinated olives, a mound of sliced prosciutto and hunks of Parmesan cheese. For Italians, this is the quintessential Italian starting fare. I could eat this combination every day. The salty cheese paired with briny marinated olives with the meat is exactly how every Italian meal should begin.

Lauren makes sure to give you the low-down on how things go before the second course comes out. You start with a clean white plate and utensils. You will be told what each item is as it comes out and you can switch out your plate any time you want a clean plate for the next round. The tables all have table numbers and names so as you eat, you all can be educated on Italian items from mozzarella and panelle (which we will get to later) to garlic and rigatoni, just to name a few. 

Lauren tells everyone the point of the evening is simple and what we all crave: “We want you to sit, relax, and enjoy good things and good food.” The menu will change at any time with variations of meats, additions and appetizers with a few staple items staying on the menu so guests can come back often and try new flavors. For those who are vegetarians, you will be served additional portions of all of the already vegan appetizers and then any meat course is prepared and served as a meatless option. And they have just as much flavor and pizzazz as the meat options do.

The other fun part is you do not know what is going to come out until it’s in front of you. Just like waiting for Santa to bring a present, you have to wait to see what is being served to you. For this tasting, I am not going to tell you about all the courses, just a few staple courses, appetizers and a few that blew me away. 

Now that you have had olives with or without wine, the second course of the evening was Charlie’s famous bruschetta. Fat chunks of Italian bread are toasted and topped with a salty/​slightly sweet mix of cheese, then topped with a healthy spoonful of marinated tomatoes with garlic, oil and spices. This is bursting with sweet and robust flavor, a perfect palate warm-up for the rest of the courses. Charlie uses nothing out of a can or bag. His marinades, sauces and dressings, among other things, are all scratch-made with big Italian love in them. 

The next course is another example of scratch made at its finest, the fresh handmade mozzarella with a side of marinated red peppers that Charlie roasted and marinated himself. The peppers were sweet and tender and the mild mozzarella had the perfect pull and bounce with just enough moisture to make it melt in your mouth.

One of the staple pasta dishes that is served with different variations of additions and pasta is the rigatoni in vodka sauce with pancetta and peas. The mixture of these three items is perfection. Al dente pasta, sweet peas and smoky pancetta all bathed in a luscious creamy vodka sauce. I had to pace myself so I would be able to make it to the end of courses. After the pasta, I was served several other photo- and taste bud-worthy items and every time we heard the bell sound the next course, we all straightened our backs, excited — I was glad I wore my stretchy pants.

There were meatballs the size of the Roman Coliseum made with veal, pork and beef, other meat and seafood courses, sides, pastas and one of the most unique and delicious food items I have tasted. It is called panelle and it is a common street/​food vendor food on the streets of Palermo, Sicily. Street vendors serve it up a variety of ways. It starts with chick pea flour that has been ground to a fine powder. They add in parsley, kosher salt and light spices and make it into a mixture. The mixture is poured, set, then cut into squares and lightly fried. The color is similar to pita bread but has a fine crispy top. The panelle is served with lemon wedges that you squeeze over before eating. Some people describe it like a hummus pancake or potato cake, but the texture inside is much softer and smoother and less spicy than hummus sometimes can be. The outside has a slight chew and the delicate, fragrant inner dough melts in your mouth. Add in the acidity and brightness from the lemon juice and it is unique and addictive. Of all the items I tried, it was one of my favorites. The rest of the evening was a leisurely stroll down Italian streets with laughter, smiles, full bellies and full contentment. The last course was a tasty Italian dessert, the cannoli, filled with dreamy sweet cream filling and chocolate chips.

I had the pleasure of having my tasting with a large group of local small business owners and we all sat at one long U-shaped table which allowed all of us to converse back and forth between courses. Cucina LaMantia can accommodate large parties and with only one seating all guests are fed at the same time. Before you leave, you have to get your photo made with their sign that says “Cucina LaMantia Welcome to Our Family” because once you come, you become family. 

That is what I loved about this place, the feeling of community. Cucina LaMantia is open on Wednesday-Saturday from 6-9 p.m./​10 p.m. (whenever dinner service ends). Dinner starts at 6 p.m. and is reservation only. Why? Because it takes a little time to make all the wonderful courses and they are worth waiting for. If you have not tried Cucina LaMantia, you should go, relax and enjoy fine food with friends and family and make new memories in 2019 with food at the center. 

For more information check out their website at  www.cucinalamantia.com or call 252-242-2525.

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