Opening a restaurant is a lifelong dream for many new Americans; usually places that represent the cooking of their native lands. Gina Linzi, who came here eight years ago to work as a bus girl at New York-New York’s Il Fornaio, has realized that dream. After a climb to that restaurant’s position of general manager, she struck out on her own to open a comely Italian bistro on the city’s west side. And it’s a real charmer, like Gina herself.
Not that she looks the part of chef. Clad in high heels, with the grace of a supermodel, Gina is a draw in her own right, greeting her customers in a warm, Mediterranean fashion that undoubtedly brings them back as much as what is on the plate. She’s a natural for the restaurant business, one of the most charming hostesses in a city filled with them.
Like many people opening their first restaurants, she’s done so on a budget, so don’t expect the grandiose trappings of a high-end Strip Italian restaurant when you come here. Gina’s is small and charming, furnished simply with postage stamp-sized tables and red-and-white-checkered mats. Walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Italian cityscapes, and overhead, a TV set is tuned at all times to an Italian satellite channel.
Most of Gina’s customers speak Italian; the bistro seems to be some sort of de facto social club. And as there is no beer and wine license as yet, any libations other than Panna, San Pellegrino or soft drinks like Aranciata, a bittersweet orange soda from Italy, are going to be strictly BYO, which by the way is perfectly permissible.
Gina is from Molise, a small province in the extreme south of Italy, so cooking tends toward southern Italian as well, meaning hearty red sauces, lots of cheese and bread like nonna, your Italian grandmother, used to make. I like to start any meal here by ordering a bruschetta (pronounce it “brus-ketta,” not “brus-shetta,” as is commonly heard), puffy toast topped with fresh, diced tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil. This version is an especially good one, with crisp edges and ripe, sweet tomato-y flavor.
Antipasto all’Italiana is another winner. You’ll get a large platter of thinly sliced prosciutto and ripe tomatoes crowned with bufala mozzarella—also black olive, roasted peppers and hunks of grana, Parmesan cheese from Italy. Eaten with slices of the house country white Italian bread and a touch of extra virgin olive oil, it’s a feast for one and a treat for two.
Look to the specials blackboard for the soup of the day, which could be anything from a homey zuppa di ceci, a rustic garbanzo bean-laced broth, to a more substantial lentil soup.
Hot appetizers include fried calamari served with a side of chunky marinara, or vongole e cozze all’arrabbiata, fresh clams and mussels in the shell, in a spicy tomato bath.
- Gina's Bistro
4226 S. Durango Drive, 341-1800. Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. until 10 p.m.
- Suggested dishes: bruschetta al pomodoro, $5.95; insalata Nizzarda, $9.25; pappardelle tre bocconi, $12.50; costoletta di maiale alla Milanese, $15.95
- Gina's Bistro in the Restaurant Guide
At lunch, the best salad might be insalata Nizzarda, which the French stole and call salade Nicoise. Gina’s take on this dish uses more flaky tuna than the French version, tricked up with hard-boiled eggs, steamed potatoes and lots of green beans, on a bed of greens laced with a tangy vinaigrette. As an option, there is also insalata di spinaci, with Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts.
The heart of the Italian bistro menu are the pastas. One of the best choices is strozzapreti alla Norcina (the colorful name means “strangle the priest,” ostensibly because it was so delicious, he ate it too fast and choked on it). These are oddly shaped, hand-rolled noodles that look almost worm-like, laced with a light tomato cream sauce packed with ground sausage meat and scented with truffles.
Another pasta I recommend here is pappardelle tre bocconi, wide fettucine noodles in a rich, tomato-based sauce stewed with bacon, prosciutto and tiny veal meatballs, sort of a meat lover’s pasta, with apologies to Pizza Hut. Sometimes there is a Kermit-green pesto from Liguria, that blend of pine nuts, cheese, basil and olive oil, that I’ve eaten here on a toothsome risotto from the specials board, and also on fusilli, spiral-shaped noodles.
Gina’s doesn’t get too fancy with secondi, or main courses, sticking to basics such as chicken, pork and the occasional piece of fresh fish. Costoletta di maiale all Milanese is a fancy name for a breaded pork chop, in this case a fairly greaseless version served with a pile of crisp, oven-roasted potatoes and steamed broccoli with a touch of garlic.
Chicken alla Valdostana, a frequent special, is a pan-sautéed, deboned breast, blanketed with an impossibly rich sauce made from cream and fresh mushrooms. The big splurge is zuppa di pesce, mussels, clams, shrimp, calamari and fish in a white wine tomato sauce. I hope you have saved room for dessert.
Because if you have, Gina’s is one of the few local places serving cassata Siciliana, a frozen cream confection made with dried fruits and nuts. There are also profiteroles from Italy, frozen cream puffs topped with chocolate sauce, the most delicious Italian import I can think of—other than Gina herself.