Sunday, May 15, 2011

Winston-Salem Delight

From East to West
... and stops along the way

If you’re heading west from Raleigh-Durham area on Hwy. 40, your eyes will delight in the rainbow of colors along the roadway. It’s a refreshing change from the hectic pace of the Triangle area. The plush emerald green pines dot the main thoroughfares in this multiple research-university city and are a sharp contrast to most congested metropolitan areas.

As you leave the southern style bustle behind, you encounter fields of crimson and yellow crested poppies as you cruise along the interstate. Amongst the foliage you’ll also view what appears to be lavender holly hocks but there’s no time to stop and verify your findings before another tuff of brilliant poppies appear. These prolific blooms have taken over the once lush golden Tiger Lilly gardens that lined the freeway. The colorful display is a pleasing drama. Dogwoods and Crepe Myrtles, in what appears to be natural growth, adds to the refreshing landscape. This is one government project to be applauded. Job well done North Carolina.

As you roll closer to the Blue Ridge Mountain range, beyond Greensboro with Point Pilot in the horizon, why not take a leisure detour into Winston Salem via the 40 Business Route which intersects with north/ south 52. That route will take your directly to the vibrant downtown of a city once famous for its tobacco industry. In today’s sensitive atmosphere over lung disease and clean air, you won’t see any signs to encourage smokers to light up nor will you smell the aftermath of burnt tobacco leaves. Those ghostly smoke stacks have long been removed or disguised.
What you will see are rows of quaint houses on steep inclines, with clapboard siding and multiple window boxes as you twist and turn toward Fourth Street where the action in this historic city takes place.

We decided on a whim to spend the night at the Marriott Hotel in the heart of Winston-Salem. Southern hospitality at its best, first the doorman and then the concierge encouraged us to take a stroll down Fourth Street and suggested a restaurant for dinner other than the one within their employer’s establishment.

Needing a stretch, we embarked on a short walk with a faint mist in the warm air. Hunger would win out soon so we decided to check out the choices for dinner on the street. A busy specialty pizza stop, steak house and a coffee shop, few others that caught our eye. A crush of people walked at a more hurried pace than ours. On their way to the Stevens Center, a renovated theatre for the performing arts. The energetic crowd brushed by with smiles and nods as we casually window shopped. No hurry on our part, the art shops and menus posted by the various eateries had our attention. We came to the end of the block and found the recommended restaurant which had outdoor seating on the walkway. With the pleasant spring air, we were tempted to take a seat and relax over a glass of wine.

My companion, who always decides by convenience, surprised me with a suggestion to walk a little further. We strolled by Dioli’s Trattoria and took a quick glance at the menus. Hooked. Classic Italian. Were we in South Philly or North Carolina? We did a double take at the hustle and bustle on the other side glass door. Oh dear, how long the wait?

The Maitre’d, a charming young woman, said it might be quite a while as they were in the midst of serving a full house intent on being seated before the opening line of Oklahoma. No problem, there were two seats at the bar. Out of the busy path, we'd have a drink and enjoy the busy but cheerful atmosphere.

The first sign our choice had been on mark came with the calm and ease of the tall bartender who smiled at us as he filled drink orders in quick, rapid order, satisfied the sweet-tooth of a departing guest with delivery of Drioli’s own tiramisu , re-stocked the bar with needed glasses and assured two travelers the house merlot would make for a perfect transition into the dining room. Had angst been evident on our faces over how to relieve our road thirst? “Cielo Merlot,” he said and then offered a taste before the purchase.

Seldom does a house wine offer the same excitement as a great wine with a price that doesn’t make your heart stop. We toasted the busy bartender and looked over the menu. And realized we’d created a problem. A light dinner could easily turn into a weight watcher disaster. With a deep breath to quell our unruly urges, we decided we could be sensible and still sate our appetites. A longer walk after dinner.

The menu included several dishes with freshly made pasta, guaranteed to be served al dente and preserve its toothy bite. From small plate to dinner entrees, we thought the mix of protein, carbohydrates and aromatic olive oils would fit our likings, too. Foodies that we are, we knew by the carefully worded menu we had found a first class, nuevo Italian treasure. My seafood loving partner ordered the Grilled Salmon Piccata entrée served atop a generous but not chain store size serving of risotto Milanese. A side of fresh, bright green asparagus not only added color but balanced the sharp flavor of the piccata sauce. "Wonderful," he said. He offered one small bite and I concurred it was a melt in your mouth delight.

Several small plates caught my attention and I vacillated between a pure vegetarian plate or a serving of protein to balance the carbohydrates from Dioli’s daily made breadsticks which we enjoyed with the rich, velvet Cielo Merlot. Thin and crisp, the sticks were delicately flavored with rosemary and a little garlic salt. I remembered perfect meatballs from my South Philly days and ordered the small plate of homemade meatballs smothered in Dioli’s house marinara and parmesan cheese. They were, undoubtedly, the lightest and best I’ve ever eaten. Three per serving—just enough to feel I hadn’t shorted myself by ordering an appetizer. What made the texture and taste so perfect? Did the chef blend the right amount of veal with sirloin and perhaps added pork tenderloin for perfect balance? The marinara sauce—a full bodied taste of roasted red tomatoes, perhaps cherry, grape or Roman, blended with olive oil, onions and garlic? Perfect texture and delicious doesn’t do justice to the taste provided. My side, too, came from the small plate list. Grilled asparagus wrapped in pancetta and served with a red bell pepper pesto took my breath away.

We savored the wholesome tastes and finished the carafe of Cielo. When we complimented our hostess and she invited us to return. That we will. I've planned my next foray into dining heaven--the Eggplant Involtini filled with fresh ricotta cheese and grilled vegetable pesto. Something tells me, though, I can't go wrong with whatever choice is made in the comfortable setting. My partner…well, he’ll go for the Salmon again but plans to bypass lunch and try the small plate Ricotta Gnocchi to add to his feast.

Did we succumb to Dioli’s fresh prepared desserts? Tiramisu and other chocolate and crème delights were as tempting as another serving of the breadsticks but we passed this time around. We’ll give up breakfast on our next visit so we don’t miss out the best of the best. Dioli’s deserves the highest rating for its service, ambiance and food. Back on the road soon. Route 52 into the heart of Winston-Salem and great dining.

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