I am leaving Charlotte. My friends – reluctantly – will say that they saw this coming. Perhaps you, too, will say the same. And perhaps even a small subset of you will experience a type of joy that will make you quiver in your Uggs, for as I have come to learn these past two and a half years, to live in Charlotte is to know many an Ashleigh who has been personally victimized by my food writing.
And then there’s me, who just a few short months ago would have said you’re all wrong. I didn’t grow up wanting to live in North Carolina, and if you’ve ever met me in person or saw the fuchsia faux suede tote that I carry confidently into even the most Southern of establishments, then you’ll know that I don’t exactly fit in here.
But for better or for worse, Charlotte and I eventually came to an understanding. I would remain an outsider in the local foodie community, never part of the influencer crowd, as I’m fully immune to sycophancy — though not to rolling my eyes at anyone with a toothy grin who has the utter caucacity to tell me where to eat in Charlotte (#legit! #hashtag!). Queen City restaurants, in return, could go on doing their thing.
If the food was good, I would write love letters. If the food was bad, I would not hold back.
Sure, this meant from time to time that local chefs would slide into my DMs to call me trash or worse, or that media tastings were always somewhat awkward before the first cocktail, but this — being your local restaurant critic — has been an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
So as I sit here writing, taking a break from — reluctantly — packing one last suitcase to take with me out west to new day-job adventures, I realized that, as your local restaurant critic, it would be remiss of me to leave without telling you what I think is the best restaurant in Charlotte. It is Stagioni.
You didn’t see that one coming, did you?
In all fairness, that would be a legitimate reaction, what with my well-documented love for chefs in this town named Greg or Hector. But back in September, on a night so unseasonable and bright that it seemed summer and fall could peacefully coexist, it was my reaction, too — when I fell hard for that first bite of corn pizza.
Its ugliness was a virtue, this imperfect pie, not quite round, fresh from the fire, dotted in burnt brown bubbles; covered in guck. I say this because as I’ve come to learn these past two and a half years, to live in Charlotte is to know that when a restaurant serves you food that no influencer would dare share on Instagram, you are in for a rare treat.
Is this cynicism? No, it’s experience, and that first bite told me that for all of my experience, I may never again have a pizza quite as good.
Sweet bits of corn, indelicately shucked and haplessly puréed; lobes of pancetta rendered into dark, lacquered candy; a hint of chili and what appeared to be an oogy mess of cream laced with gremolata. This pizza was still bubbling when it came to the table, still defiant in its appearance even as I closed my eyes, took a bite — with cheese dribbling down my hand — and winced in pleasure.
For an ephemeral moment on the palate, summer and fall did peacefully coexist, and they tasted like a dream.
A Myers Park oasis
As I sit on the plane now, safely in the air after a two-hour delay, it occurs to me that Stagioni is the best restaurant in Charlotte for many of the reasons you wouldn’t expect. Let’s begin with that boulevardier.
On a concise list of proper cocktails, sturdy and expertly mixed, this classic stands out. Sure, wizardry and light shows have their place in the cocktail world, but is there anything more magical or enlightening than whiskey, sweet vermouth and Campari perfectly balanced and impeccably cold, swirling around in a glass?
Admire one (or two, or three before appetizers as I did once) in the low light of the restaurant, with a candle flickering next to it on the table, and be seduced by the red glow into thinking you and only you are in on a secret.
And that’s another thing that makes Stagioni so great; it feels like a secret dinner club — like Charlotte’s version of Rao’s in NYC perhaps — but only for the first 30 seconds you’ve walked in, after which you quickly realize that you’ve happened upon the neighborhood watering hole.
In fact, that goes to explain in some part my visceral reaction to the corn pizza. I couldn’t quite reconcile that that glorious pizza, courtesy of chef Bruce Moffett, came from a kitchen that was part of the same restaurant group as Good Food on Montford, the only restaurant in Charlotte whose name is an outright lie.
Whereas that restaurant serves up food that tries so desperately to be relevant in a neighborhood that has never seemed like a good fit (not that any neighborhood in Charlotte would be), Stagioni is effortlessly timeless and at home in Myers Park.
It may be the only reason many of us would ever go to Myers Park.
Sure, Stagioni is where the Bitsies come to roost (“Bitsy” being the stand-in name for “mother of Ashleigh”), and one of my favorite dinner memories was of a Bitsy, who somehow managed to get past the hostess — who otherwise keeps up a formidable blockade even for regulars — being chased through the dining room as she made a beeline to the open kitchen, pearl necklace flapping in her wake, by a server clapping her hands and shouting, “EXCUSE ME, MA’AM!”
Never underestimate, however, the equalizing force of dollar-store plastic scissors.
Bitsies, banker bros, their lawyers and the people who loathe them — all suffering through those things to get at that pizza. Stagioni may be this neighborhood’s watering hole, but it is one open to all, and everyone who walks through the door — invisible from the main road, tucked back in a white stucco building as though purposefully (defiantly!) off the radar — will be brought down to earth.
And then there are the many reasons you would expect.
There was gnocchi one night, so light that in the darkness of the dining room they could have been floating for all I know. It came in a parmesan brodo, chock full of different mushrooms, corn, peas, and most importantly, salty, crunchy, cheeky bits of speck. The taste was so good it made me stupid, leaving me to crack jokes at the expense of what was once a promising professional writing career, like, “In retro-speck-t, it was speck-tacular.” That sort of thing.
Or that lush, green bauble of creamy mousse that came with a plate of pan-seared trout.
Or octopus, the tentacles wondrously grilled, that were robust on their own, and euphoric with the pickled vegetables that shared the plate.
Or how, as befitting an Italian restaurant, everything is served family-style, which is conducive to the enjoyment of picky eaters, or professional ones, both of whom can make their own plates to satisfy their own tastes. One night, mine had a slice of museum-quality pepperoni pizza, a scallop the size of an onion, and an onion the size of a scallop.
Or how the focaccia bread, which you would do well not to disregard as my friends and I almost did one night, is as close to holy as anything in this life will ever get.
The bread, it turns out, along with the pasta and the desserts, are all the work of a man whose name I’m told is Johnny Ramallo. He may as well be Keyser Söze, for I have never seen this man, nor have many of the staff at Stagioni, each of whom hesitated when asked to confirm his existence.
The same holiness he imbued into the focaccia also went into a cannoli sundae, which is where, as a food writer, I begin to break down — in tears. Never in my life have I experienced the kind of pleasure that the first bite of this dessert brought me, the interaction of textures, temperatures, and tastes condensing down into a point from which exploded a Big Bang of feelings. Is this what religion is like? I wanted to ask him, but he wasn’t there, and when on another visit I wanted to fight him for taking the sundae off the menu, he wasn’t there either.
If I am allowed one wish before I’m gone, it’s for Johnny to come out from behind the curtain and show himself. You, sir, are the Real Thing and the hero that the restaurant scene in Charlotte so desperately needs.
The influencers did show up in the end. The retired school administrator, the pharmacists, the tricep model — all gathered to wish me farewell.
Up until that point, I doubt the food at Stagioni had been so thoroughly posed and photographed. I love to tease them when we eat together. Like how it took 10 minutes that night for them all to take their pictures of manicotti in butternut squash cream with ground duck before I could have a bite. I guarantee it tasted better than their pictures turned out. Bless the low light that makes baked pasta and rich olive oil cake impossible to Insta.
I, on the other hand, sat back and took pics of the picture-takers. I found one that shows two of them fighting for the best angle to capture a pizza, dollar-store scissors akimbo, my drink sitting quietly off to the side.
I left Charlotte, but I think about that night now as I look at that picture, sitting here on the floor of my apartment in California — cold and empty; my furniture won’t arrive for another week. I think about how grateful I am to have had that meal with them, perched on bar stools and laughing the night away at Stagioni — Charlotte’s best restaurant — and to have had that one last Boulevardier for the road.