The heartfelt and exuberant Café Gia Ristorante opened a little over a year ago on a corner at the outskirts of Little Italy. Everything about the place—from the accolades in all caps printed alongside descriptions of dishes on the menu to the sponge-painted walls splashed with murals—encourages you to leave your careworn self at the door, to indulge in satisfying portions of pasta and tiramisu, and to feel like you come here often, even if it's your first visit.
The outside of the restaurant is decorated to give the illusion of a series of irregular buildings on a street corner in an Italian village—with colorful doors, stucco walls, and a wrought-iron balcony. And inside, just about every flat surface is decorated with paintings mimicking vintage advertisements for Italian liquors and beer and bright illustrations reminiscent of posters by Toulouse Lautrec and other cafe artists. Even the tops of the lacquered wood tables are decorated in bright hues.
Until recently, the restaurant was BYOB. But no more. It now has a liquor license, which prompted us to revisit this earnest Little Italy restaurant. The wine list has been slowly evolving, with mostly Italian and West Coast offerings, starting at $5 by the glass and $28 by the bottle.
The night we went, owner Gia Blattermann-Fugate's mother, Giovanna, was on duty, picking up the slack for a couple of harried servers working the dining areas upstairs and down. But she stopped at each table, offering advice on the menu, asking how we liked the wine, and wondering where we lived—all in a straightforward, impassive manner, absent of any forced cheerfulness.
The menu is similarly straightforward, with the kind of predictable offerings that keep the "red sauce" set within its comfort zone. But this food has authentic Sicilian roots. The owner's year-old son Luca represents the family's fourth generation in Little Italy. As the website points out, they moved 3,500 miles in 1953 and haven't moved 200 feet since. And the food—with its tomato sauce over pasta and familiar renditions of veal and chicken—doesn't stray far from Little Italy expectations.
The laminated menu is visually chaotic. Just about every dish is followed by an endorsement by a friend or relative or an anonymous rave. The tortellini Rosa (cheese cappelletti with peas, pancetta, and marinara) is "Luca's daddy's fave"—while the ravioli Positano (cheese ravioli with sausage, mushrooms, and basil) is "esquisito!"
All this added a bit of angst to our decision-making. After all, we wanted to get it right. What if we were more simpatico with the woman who loves the veal marsala than we were with Rosa, who donated her recipe for meatballs marinara?
We finally decided to go with Kathy's Favorite, a simple eggplant parmagiana whose success is, in most cases, entirely dependent on slicing the eggplant paper thin. If we ever run into Kathy, we'll thank her: The delicate layers of breaded eggplant, mozzarella, and fresh tomato sauce were punched up with basil and served on a bed of linguini. We also chose a special of the evening: ravioli with lobster and shrimp. The deliciously sweet filling in al dente pasta with a creamy tomato sauce was topped with chunks of artichoke that had been frizzled on the grill.
We started with the grilled Caesar with nicely charred leaves, though it was a bit soggy, and grilled calamari, which was light and not too chewy. Bruschetta is a classic rendition: crispy bread piled with chopped tomatoes mixed with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil with the added tang of kalamata olives and the crunch of green peppers. There are also appetizer specials each night, like a roasted tomato salad—warm tomatoes topped with a mountain of greens dressed in vinaigrette with chunks of Gorgonzola cheese and a sprinkling of pine nuts.
We suspect you can't really go wrong with the food at Café Gia. The chicken parm is just as it should be, laden with stretchy cheese and fresh tomato sauce. A funky special of double-wide pappardelle with grapes, goat cheese, pancetta, spicy sausage, and shreds of wilted spinach was a surprisingly successful mix of flavors and textures. The place is welcoming to children, happily providing a plain bowl of noodles tossed in oil or marinara. And there are hearty options, like a frequent osso buco special.
Desserts are simple, featuring a light, creamy tiramisu (made by Giovanna); lemon mascarpone layer cake; and crunchy cannoli shells with a decadent ricotta filling.
Despite all the yumminess, we found the service erratic. The simple task of offering a second glass of wine or beer seemed to befuddle the wait staff for now. And once our entrees were placed before us, there was no follow-up from our server, not even a friendly inquiry to make sure everything was okay. Mother Giovanna sets it right, however, wandering up at random intervals and forestalling potential irritation.
When you're so embraced, it's easy to be forgiving, and Café Gia is that kind of place. It's not just the pounded chicken, breaded and coated with mozzarella; the baked cavatelli with Bolognese sauce; or the homemade ravioli we crave. It's the complete Little Italy experience—a family from the Old World sharing not only its tradition of food, but the joy they derive from sharing it.