Modern Swank 

Channeling ritzy charm, Gersi’s sends Italian dining uptown.

click to enlarge The grilled polenta with prosciutto di Parma and fennel has a char that added an earthy depth.

Scott Elmquist

The grilled polenta with prosciutto di Parma and fennel has a char that added an earthy depth.

In the film “Goodfellas,” Ray Liotta’s character wows his date when waiters at the Copacabana conjure up a white-tableclothed two-top as the couple arrives, whisking it and the table to the front row of Henny Youngman’s performance. On the soundtrack, the Crystals sing “Then He Kissed Me” to punctuate the moment’s vintage swank.

The Copa is in Times Square now, but New York’s cool kids hang out in Brooklyn. Gersi, which also has a Brooklyn location, channels a little of “Goodfellas” midcentury Italian American glamour bolstered by modern food bona fides. Our dinner experience was right out of the movies, but lunch was like a half-thought-out sequel.

There are no white tablecloths at Gersi, but the marble tabletops are ritzy stand-ins. We had to sit at the bar on a Thursday night because there weren’t any available tables at 6:30. Oddly, no waiters appeared bearing our own personal two-top.

The Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney background music steered us toward a classic Negroni aperitif ($13), an excellent balance of bitter and sweet. Rarely seen in small restaurants these days, complimentary bread service arrived with a modern plot twist — instead of butter or olive oil, Gersi offered white beans punched up with lots of garlic and a hit of red pepper. They’re delicious, but would spread better if they were slightly mashed. We ended up eating ours with forks.

We wanted to meander our way through a few starter dishes before committing to main courses, but the bartender insisted we order the mains with the starters. This was a funny — not funny like a clown, to quote Joe Pesci’s character — throwback to midcentury dining styles. We decided to limit ourselves to a single appetizer in case the servings were large.

We chose well. The broccoli rabe with anchovies ($13.95) layered fat white anchovies over tangy blanched greens and rustic croutons, dusted with black pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon. The hefty plate was large enough for two to share, and four to taste. I would have had room for a salad also.

As we waited for the main course, I glanced around at our fellow diners. The clientele — I recognized residents from Windsor Farms and the near West End —sparkled with jewelry and furs. Blond and white hair dominated the room. I felt like we were in Richmond’s version of “Goodfellas” — more genteel than gangster.

Despite tempting lamb, beef and fish main courses, we chose the more unusual grilled polenta with prosciutto di Parma and fennel ($16.95). The char on the polenta added an earthy depth, heightened by generous fennel shavings and cured ham. The dish was topped with a 2- to 3-inch square of surprisingly flavorless Parmesan. I’ve never seen a slice that large stay intact and not crumble. The texture was more like a Gruyere. The presentation wowed, but that’s all the cheese added to the dish.

The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and Italian sausage ($18.95) was bold with fennel seeds in the sausage and more shaved fennel in the dish. The sauce was creamy with butter and pasta water, clinging temptingly to the al dente pasta. I don’t usually like Italian sausage, but I will order this dish again.

Italians rule the wine list, which leans heavily toward big reds. My date opted for a tasty super Tuscan Terrilogio ($13) to match the sausage pasta. My organic vermentino from ColleMasari was refreshingly crisp with the polenta.

For dessert, we skipped the obligatory tiramisu in favor of affogato ($7.75) — hot espresso poured over vanilla gelato or ice cream. Although the menu description said house-made gelato, ours lacked gelato’s classic dense creaminess. After the bartender poured, we raced to eat the melting ice cream, then drank it from the bowl as a cremalike topping for the still-warm espresso. This is a brilliant finish to a meal that I can’t wait to make at home.

A few days later, visiting for lunch, I got a more behind-the-scenes view of Gersi. Opening a restaurant is like opening the curtain on a stage production — everything should be ready. But when I arrived at noon, the host was on the telephone and a server was at the back of the dining room — neither even looked up. After several minutes I had to call out to get the server’s attention and ask if they were open.

They were, but barely. From the kitchen, Nirvana tunes blared out to compete with Miles Davis in the dining room. A cook started singing along. A delivery person arrived through the front door with boxes stacked on a hand truck. The host chatted casually with another employee, then met a candidate for a job interview at an adjacent table. I felt like I had wandered into the morning’s prep work.

The server kindly split our shared leek and potato soup ($6.95) into two bowls, but mine was unevenly heated, with alternating cold and hot spots. My date’s was lukewarm. The black kale panzanella salad ($13.95) was tangy and loaded with croutons. The beet and ricotta ravioli ($17.95) had a charmingly pink filling, with a deep sweetness and brown butter sauce that I couldn’t get enough of. The food was good, but $50 with tax and tip is more than I want to pay for a weekday work lunch when two people share the main course.

The not-ready-for-prime-time lunch aside, Gersi delivers on several notable rustic Italian dishes. If you’re ready for your uptown cameo, break out the pearls and cufflinks and grab a swanky table for dinner.

805 N. Davis Ave.
Mondays and Tuesdays, 5 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Wednesdays and Thursdays, noon - 10 p.m.
Fridays, noon - 11 p.m.
Saturdays, 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Sundays, 11 a.m.– 3 p.m.


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