Classic Sicilian fare, on a Little Italy balcony

At Cafe Gia, the pleasures of the Italian dinner table

September 27, 2014|By Richard Gorelick | The Baltimore Sun

I had one of those soul-satisfying, I-love-Baltimore nights a few Saturdays back at Cafe Gia Ristorante, a colorful, cheerful and satisfying Italian restaurant on the corner of High Street and Eastern Avenue.

We showed up for early dinner reservations and were whisked right upstairs to the narrow second-floor balcony, which was pretty darn magical on this particular night. The view from there isn't spectacular, but it's captivating, a mix of old and new. Across the street, you can see diners on the balcony at Dalesio's, and further back, the high- and medium-rise luxury apartment buildings of the Harbor East development.

Cafe Gia is named for Gia Blattermann, who owns the restaurant with her fiance, the restaurant's executive chef, Gianfranco Fracassetti. It was Blattermann who seated us on the balcony, without our even asking, and who waited on us. Her mother, Giovanna Aquia Blattermann, was working the dining room, too, as she has been since Gia's opened back in 2006 as a one-room BYOB. The restaurant expanded and acquired a liquor license in 2008.

We got good advice about ordering from the menu, which is divided into three sections — antipasti, which are appetizers; primi, which are mostly pasta dishes; and secondi, which are entrees, nearly all of them either veal or chicken.

Sometimes we just got an approving nod, when we ordered something that mother or daughter thought was especially delicious, like the polenta del contadino appetizer, a preparation of rich and creamy polenta, flavored with Fontina cheese and salami, served over spears of grilled asparagus and topped, "farmer's style," with a sunny-side-up egg.

This appetizer was elegant enough for a Saturday-night restaurant table, but you could easily see it being served for a Sunday night dinner in someone's home. That's Cafe Gia at its best — food that feels and tastes homemade, but is served with a little style and panache in an uplifting atmosphere. The restaurant's signature murals, by the late Yuri Fatkulin, who was known as "Yuri the Artist," are as captivating as ever.

The food, for the most part, is simply prepared and seasoned in a straightforward way — a fritto misto appetizer with very lightly fried shrimp, artichoke and calamari; a bowl of orecchiette pasta tossed with spicy Italian sausage, broccoli rabe and white wine garlic sauce; and a bowl of spinach gnocchi, light as marshmallows, in a wickedly rich Gorgonzola cream sauce.

Among the entrees, our favorite was the chicken cacciatore, a generous serving of bone-in roasted chicken with mushrooms, potatoes and onions. We liked the light and piquant flavors in the veal con carciofi, new to the menu, Blattermann told us, tender veal cutlets sauteed with artichoke hearts, lemon and just a touch of mint.

Another new entree, slow-cooked short ribs, was not so good. It was actually quite disagreeable — chewy meat that was flavored with what tasted like burnt coffee. We are willing to write it off as a fluke. It even sounded like an odd addition to a menu of recognizable Italian-American fare, which would include the two dessert options, both homemade, both excellent — a tiramisu with real espresso flavor and cannoli with rich but not-too-sweet ricotta filling.

Funny how fast things change. Remember that nonsense about troubled times in Little Italy?

That was just last year, when a few long-standing restaurants in the neighborhood closed within a few months of each other. Baltimoreans wondered if maybe it all meant something, but after much communal hand-wringing, it turned out that the closings were less ominous than coincidental.

The most you could say, trendwise, was that the children of Little Italy restaurateurs aren't as willing to take over the family business as they were in the old days. Shocking, I know.

I don't think we need to worry too much about Little Italy, which looked to be doing just fine on a recent Saturday night, with its sidewalks clogged and parking lots full, just like in the old days.


Cafe Gia

Rating: 3 stars

Where: 410 S. High St., Little Italy

Contact: 410-685-6727, cafegiabaltimore.com

Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays; 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays

Prices: Appetizers: $7.50-$15.95; entrees and sandwiches: $17-$23

Food: Classic Italian-American cuisine

Service: Personable and considerate

Parking: Paid parking at nearby garages and lots. The restaurant offers vouchers for certain lots.

Outdoor seating: An outdoor balcony seats 20.

Children: Children are welcome, and the kitchen is happy to adjust menu items.

Special diets: The kitchen can accommodate most dietary restrictions. Gluten-free pastas are available.

Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is easy in most dining areas. A wide-screen television on the first floor is used only for major events.

[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2 ; Promising: 1]

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