Candor is on the menu when Luiggi Campoverde, manager of Fiamma Ristorante, an Italian restaurant in the Park Square Shopping Center in south Charlotte, opens his Queen City Nerve interview with a bombshell. We came to talk about a year of transition between management at the family-owned Italian restaurant, but Campoverde throws everything off when he announces matter-of-factly that Fiamma is temporarily shutting down due to COVID-19.
When a customer reported she had been exposed to the virus on Oct. 24, Luiggi and his father Fernando, who founded the Dilworth neighborhood fixture in 2006, acted quickly.
“Because we’re locally owned and … operated by a single family – my family, we don’t have the luxury of being as slack about [COVID-19] as other restaurants,” Luiggi says.
He and his father closed Fiamma’s doors and had everyone on staff tested for the virus. When all the tests came back negative the following Tuesday, they sanitized the dining room and kitchen and prepped for a reopening on Halloween.
Campoverde never found out if the customer was positive or not.
“At this point it doesn’t really matter,” Campoverde says. Just the possibility was enough for the family to do what it had to do. They focused on making sure all the people handling their customers’ food were healthy. They felt they owed it to their patrons to shut down. As this story goes to print, Campoverdi tells Queen City Nerve that the reopening went smoothly, with slightly fewer customers than usual.
“Was it the most profitable decision? Obviously not, because we missed Saturday dinner services,” Campoverde says answering his own question.
He maintains that Fiamma has bucked the trend followed by some bigger and better-funded establishments in Charlotte by being obsessively strict about staff and customer safety.
To prove his point, blue tape markers on the floor of the dining room indicate that each table is placed 6 feet apart, Campoverde says. A sign at the front door notes that Fiamma is stricter about face-mask regulations than other places. Inside, patrons are politely reminded to keep their masks on when they walk to and from tables.
“COVID definitely threw us for a loop,” Campoverde admits.
Fiamma’s strict mask rules, which predated Gov. Cooper’s statewide face-mask mandate, even rubbed some longtime patrons the wrong way.
“In the current political climate, some people weren’t happy about it.” Campoverde says, “We lost some people because they were bitter about that for some reason or another.”
Growing Up in Fiamma Ristorante
Campoverde and his two younger brothers have been involved in the family business since the traditional northern Italian restaurant opened 14 years ago.
At age 11, he was scrubbing pots and pans on weekends. By the time he was 16, Luiggi was a dishwasher. He then went on to wait tables.
In his twenties, Campoverde decided his journey at Fiamma had gone as far as it could go. He set out for greener pastures, waiting tables at other Charlotte restaurants. Early this year, at 25, he came back to Fiamma determined to step into a managerial role.
He says he felt there was too much going on for his 55-year-old father to handle all at once. Luiggi feared that Fernando was working himself into an early grave.
Throughout the year, Luiggi has begun to relieve his father of many of his day-to-day duties.
“After being a cog at [other restaurants] and seeing how their managers run things, it gave me some ideas of my own on what to do at Fiamma,” he says.
Campoverde suggests the father/son division of labor is complicated.
“It’s not like a traditional restaurant because we are family” he offers. “We are both guilty of being control freaks.”
Generally, Campoverde handles most of the front-of-house operations, allowing his father to focus on the kitchen.
As owner, Fernando has the right to veto Luiggi’s decisions. Differences of opinion appear, even in slight matters like the restaurant’s name, Fiamma, which means flame in Italian.
When Fernando shared the reason why he gave the eatery its fiery moniker with his son, Luiggi says he found the answer unsatisfactory.
“It’s something along the lines of he brings passion to his cooking, and it’s a fire,” he offers. “To be honest with you, I think it just sounded cool and he really liked it.”
When Fernando first moved to New York from Ecuador in 1987, he was 22. He started off as a busboy in local restaurants. He did not speak any English.
“If you’re an immigrant and you’re trying to make a good honest living, you probably at one point or another in your life worked in a kitchen,” Luiggi says.
He points to the late celebrity chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain, who used his platform to call attention to the hard-working ethnic groups who worked the back of house in many of America’s restaurants.
One of the minorities Bourdain mentioned most were Ecuadorians, Luiggi emphasizes.
Fiamma’s Arrival in Charlotte
The elder Campoverde never went to a formal culinary school, but eventually managed people who were culinarily trained. He worked his way up to being executive chef at New York restaurants like Mezzaluna, Mezzogiorno, and the restaurant at the Maritime Hotel in the Meatpacking District. But working in the city was taxing, and in 2006, Fernando decamped to Charlotte to open Fiamma. He was 41.
“At the time the food scene in Charlotte was completely different than what it is now,” Campoverde says. “[My father was] a big fish in a small pond.”
Fiamma drew a loyal neighborhood clientele with its emphasis on northern Italian food.
“Authentic Italian food isn’t just spaghetti and meatballs or chicken Parmigiana,” Campoverde says.
He explains that northern Italian cuisine uses more black olives and olive oil than its southern counterparts.
To this day, Fernando prepares authentic and traditional dishes from the northern part of the peninsula, dishes such as ossobuco with veal shanks and a side of saffron risotto; or gnocchi con salsiccia, a dumpling-shaped pasta with sausage, green peas and tomato sauce.
Also of northern origin is black linguini, which gets its color from squid ink, and pasta with Livornese sauce, made from tomatoes, black olives, capers and anchovies.
Fiamma Ristorante’s specialties are not all from northern Italian regions like Lombardy. There are also tradional dishes from other parts of the country. Campoverde cites pasta alla bisanzio, which is tomato sauce, basil and mozzarella cheese. Piatto di burratta, with prosciutto and arugula, is popular as well.
“We have a traditional Bolognese, or what some people in the states call a ragu,” Luiggi says. “It’s a meat sauce.”
Best sellers on the menu include traditional Bolognese with homemade pappardelle pasta and tagliolini ai gamberi made with a creamy cognac sauce, shimp and trevisano, which is like Italian radicchio. A Chilean sea bass special, pan-seared and baked with asparagus and artichokes and sauteed spaghetti squash, gets a lot of customer love as well.
Campoverde reckons the sea bass and the ossobuco get the most requests from patrons.
“People really love our gnocchi as well,” Campoverde says “A lot of our pastas are made from scratch in the kitchen.”
Fiamma boasts homemade pesto too, which Luiggi wants to stretch into more recipes in the future.
“I think we under-utilize our pesto sauce,” he offers. “We just have it in one pasta, and it’s good but I think we could be adding different ingredients to make it better. Not to toot my horn, but pesto gets a lot of love from our regulars.”
Reaching Beyond the Neighborhood
As much as the restaurant relies on neighborhood regulars, Campoverde would like to broaden Fiamma’s appeal.
“There is a brand new Charlotte demographic,” he says. “It’s still businessmen and women, but they’re closer to their college years than they are to their retirement age.”
Despite the new crowd, the restaurant has had the same ambiance since 2006. That’s something Campoverde is trying to change. He’d like to keep the regulars but get more of the new crowd coming in.
Pesto figures in one of many changes Campoverde would like to bring to Fiamma: pizza. He would like to launch pizza options in the near future, starting with three styles: four-cheese bianco; Neapolitan margherita with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil; and pesto.
“We’re trying to bring out those elevated bar food options that this new demographic is looking for,” Campoverde says.
Another step forward for Fiamma is a new gelato machine, which will allow the restaurant to make homemade gelato and sorbet.
“I’ve just been playing with it,” he offers, “seeing how much egg yolk [or] vanilla extract I can add, [also] how much Dutch processed cocoa I can add before it just gets way too bitter.”
But experiments and innovative plans for Fiamma’s future are tempered with Campoverde’s respect for tradition, exemplified by the restaurant’s bread service. It’s a dying practice; anytime a patron puts their order in, staff brings them bread. Typically, Fiamma serves pesto along with their homemade foccacia and breadsticks.
Campoverde says many restaurants don’t offer bread service. He believes that’s because they don’t want to give the customer something for free.
“You can kind of starve them and get them to order an appetizer,” he says. “Granted, we may lose 15 bucks, but we would much rather keep bread service because we think it’s a nice touch. Not many places still do it.”
Bread service or brand new pizza, tradition or innovation, Fiamma is still struggling to keep the flame burning amid uncertainty about COVID-19. Campoverde says staff has been drastically reduced due to the pandemic and precautions against spreading the virus.
In the kitchen there are typically two to three staff members at work. Employee total for front of house ranges from two on weekdays to four or five on the weekend.
Despite the challenges posed by a curtailed staff, Campoverde hopes that more people will give the restaurant another look, and see it as something beyond a cozy neighborhood spot.
“Don’t write off Fiamma … a place that is underrated,” he says. “For some reason we don’t have the spotlight shining on us [that] other places do, but we’ve been here 14 years now and the food shows [why] that is.”
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