Next time you’re craving a big bowl of pasta, skip Olive Garden and head across the street.
Located in the Target shopping plaza at 1441 C. University Drive, Little Italy stands sandwiched in the strip mall between two identical-looking buildings, with a plain storefront. But customers who venture in won’t be disappointed.
From the thick Italian accent of the server who enthusiastically greets patrons when they walk through the door, to the perfectly crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside bread served with olive oil and herb dip (the ingredients are a secret recipe, so don’t bother asking), customers know they are in for a great meal.
Restaurant owner Gino Carannante immigrated to the United States from Bacoli, Italy, a small coastal town 30 miles from Naples, in 1996. In 2000, he moved to Winston-Salem and worked in a restaurant as the main chef for seven years before opening Little Italy with his cousin.
Family is important to Carannante and has always been the focus of the family-run restaurant. It was cooking with his family as a child that sparked his love for food.
“My mom was a stay-home mom, and that’s where I got my passion for cooking,” Carannante said. “All those nice memories of having her around and cooking those nice meals — memories come back with the smelling of the food.”
With more than 20 classic and baked pasta dishes on the menu, pasta is definitely first choice. The gnocchi bolognese is always a crowd pleaser, while the linguine pescatore is Carannante’s personal favorite.
Little Italy’s menu is heavily inspired by the foods of Carannate’s childhood and give him memories of his mom.
“It has a lot of flavors and brings back a lot of memories from when my mom used to cook,” Carannante said.
But he is quick to defend the other dishes on his menu.
“I won’t serve anything I won’t eat,” he said.
Carannante’s care and love for his restaurant and Italian cuisine comes clearly through each bite of food.
Little Italy offers a variety of authentic Italian pasta dishes, pizza and chewy bread served with olive oil. Photo by K McKay, Contributor.
Childhood favorites, such as spaghetti and meatballs, are simple yet elevated, with a clean plating style and few garnishes to distract from the essence of the dish. The thick, homemade pasta is homey and hearty, the sauce rich and flavorful.
The gnocchi lives up to its promises, tender but chewy in a tasty sauce, but it is the cheese ravioli that is the star of the day. Bathing in a sea of marinara sauce, like the spaghetti, its simplicity is effective.
Patrons have four sauce options: alfredo, tomato, marinara or meat sauce, as well as garlic and olive oil. The prices are surprisingly low for the high quality of the food —most pastas run about $12, give or take a few bucks, and lunchtime patrons have several specials on the lunch menu.
The restaurant also serves pizza, subs, salads and soups. For those with gluten allergies, gluten-free pasta and pizza are served on request.
With an extensive menu, there’s something for everyone, but Carannante hopes to expand his clientele base from regulars to include more students, and to encourage reinvesting into local businesses in the community.
“We’re not a chain — we’re family-owned, and I have my family eating here as well,” he said. “We always stand up to the quality of our product and make sure it’s the best ingredient, the best quality food that we can offer to students.”
While Carannante doesn’t see himself opening a second restaurant in the near future, expansion plans include remodeling and working with Elon University to get a Biobus stop near the restaurant.
“It could help us get more business from Elon students if they have the opportunity to get to us, because I understand a lot of freshmen do not have a car,” Carannante said.
With the current Biobus situation, students without a car can ride the University Drive line Wednesday-Sunday to Target and walk to the restaurant.
But if you’re craving authentic flavors and great tastes, the walk to Little Italy from the bus stop is well worth it. This restaurant is no impasta.