Novelty is the critic’s best pal. What fun checking out the latest glossy restaurant with that crackerjack chef. Examining — or re-examining in this case — a restaurant like Giovanni’s seems dreary in comparison.
At a restaurant well into its third decade, on a street that’s seen great changes, I found myself at a corner table in the cosy upper nook at the back of Giovanni’s, crunching top-notch fried zucchini sticks while probing a menu that never seems to change.
There is reassurance in the familiar. And though there isn’t much dazzle in this kitchen, there is integrity. When my dinner date questioned how a place like Giovanni’s, with its dated look and static menu, could possibly compete with the flashier restaurants at its price point, the answer became pretty clear as our evening progressed.
When we arrived, Giovanni’s was pretty much empty. By the time we were paying the bill, there was a boisterous crowd, every table filled and a queue had formed in the foyer. None of these people, I would suggest, was looking for a flashy menu. They were seeking the comfort of familiar faces and favourite dishes. Zucchini sticks, crispy smelts, a plate of linguine with clams, cannelloni, veal parmigiano, a fat chop, a wedge of boozy cake.
It isn’t that Giovanni’s can’t compete in a city of more dazzling options. It simpily chooses not to. Instead, it focuses on doing what it’s always done — and doing it consistently well.
And every few years I get to go back and make sure all is as it’s always been. So today’s review is brought to you by the word “steady.”
If you like breaded and browned zucchini sticks, these may be the best in town. Excellent too is the house gnocchi, in a basil tomato sauce. Order the day’s soup — something as pedestrian sounding as chicken and rice — and you get an honest broth, filled in with a neat brunoise of vegetables, a bit of chopped parsley, white rice and moist chicken. A bowl of this every day and you’d never be sick. Excellent too is the tortellini in brodo, the pasta pouches yielding, the amber liquid delicious.
I like the roasted pinenuts in the eggplant starter and I like the strips of roasted eggplant, rolled around cheese and herbs, set in a solid tomato sauce. You want something a bit more sophisticated; opt for the scallops, “cooked” in citrus and anointed with oil, surrounded by an arugula salad.
Veal parmigiano comes with a side of spaghetti Bolognese. It’s not a pretty plate, but it’s tasty food. The manicotti, cannelloni and lasagna are all fine.
Halibut comes with asparagus, roasted red pepper and grilled zucchini. The starch is a wiggly polenta cake, rich and creamy, with an appealing crust. The fish, however, is a bit overdone. It’s the one so-so dish of my visits.
The best dessert may be the house cake — an inch and a half of very moist sponge cake, generously imbibed with booze, a thin layer of chocolate mousse, an inch of custard, a dusting of quality cocoa. Good espresso to go with it. Maybe a grappa? Cin cin!