For decades, Chef Mary Ann Giordano worked in restaurants where she didn’t get much call for the Sicilian specialties she grew up with. Last year, Giordano and her father Paul published “The St. Joseph’s Day Table Cookbook,” a celebration of those dishes. This year, she took over the former O’Connell’s American Bistro on Kenmore Avenue, and opened GiGi’s Cucina Povera, a restaurant featuring Sicilian dishes. ¶ “Cucina povera,” literally food of poverty, is peasant cooking, typified by cardoons, the wild thistle turned into a treasured vegetable dish by hungry villagers. Typically the stalks are peeled, blanched and fried in crumbs. ¶ At GiGi’s, cardoons ($8.95) were three eggy patties of wilted greens with a touch of bitterness and dusted with salty cheese, a highlight of our meal. Fresh Italian bread and enjoyable white bean spread with lemon and herby olive oil were complimentary starters, served on a board.
For appetizers we asked for artichoke fritters ($9.95), arancini ($8.95) and eggs poached in pomodoro ($7.95), plus a roasted beet, orange and fennel salad ($9.95) and a fried green tomato caprese salad ($9.95).
For entrees, our guests ordered chicken saltimbocca ($18.95) and spaghetti with meatballs ($14.95). Cat got the bucatini amatriciana pasta ($15.95) and I chose the special of pork loin chops in honey-coconut-lime marinade.
I asked for oozy yolks for our poached eggs, and got them. The sauce they were coddled in was disappointingly thin – soupy not stewy – and I thought “pomodoro” was fresh tomato sauce. It was also mild to the verge of blandness. Even when chewing on the “garlic crostini,” I wondered where the garlic was.
Three artichoke fritters the size of large plums held chopped artichokes, red bell pepper and more. They were tasty but undercooked, pasty inside, and the lemony mayonnaise couldn’t make up the ground.
Two arancini, risotto balls, were excellent: expertly fried balls of tender rice and cheese that arrived in pools of red tomato sauce and green pesto. Another fried table-pleaser was the two pieces of crumb-coated green tomato in the caprese, over a bed of arugula, fresh mozzarella and tomato, dressed with a buttermilk pesto vinaigrette.
The beet, orange and fennel salad was underdressed, with sweet roasted beets and a few orange pieces peeking out from the periphery of its field mix foundation. Slices of fresh fennel bulb were cool and crunchy.
Entrees come with soup or salad, “foraged seasonal greens,” and roasted potatoes. We enjoyed the chicken soup, a homey version with lots of vegetables, and chunks of chicken. Half of our foursome voted it the best dish of the night. The roasted cauliflower soup, comfortingly creamy, was a simple satisfaction.
The chicken saltimbocca offered overcooked chicken, chopped prosciutto and little sauce. The cooked greens were plain but fresh, and the roasted potatoes were good.
Spaghetti topped with a pair of meatballs in tomato sauce that had more spicing and character than the egg dish. The meatballs were tight and chewy, not as tender as my preferred models.
The bucatini amatriciana wasn’t as intensely porky as my favorites, but it had enough garlic and spice to make it stand out.
My two pork loin slices weren’t dry, always nice to see. But they hadn’t picked up much coconut-lime flavor from its marinade, either, leaving the pork tasting mainly of grill marks. The fresh mango salsa helped with tropical zing, but there wasn’t enough of it. The rice and black beans on the plate were underseasoned or plain, but I liked the greens again.
For dessert we ordered sfinge and lemon tart (both $4.95) and chocolate panna cotta ($5.50).
Everyone should order sfinge, four ethereally light doughnuts that you slice open and anoint with ricotta canolli filling. The lemon tart was puckery and rich, calling for an espresso accompaniment. The chocolate panna cotta delivered a cocoa fix, but was gritty like understirred Quik.
Disappointments among the dishes were tempered by the cheerful, adept service that helped make our dining experience better.
As four people without a reservation, we were seated at the last unclaimed table, which was too small. But the server and hostess recognized that a larger table was opening, and took the initiative to move us. When an antipasto platter showed up, due to miscommunication, the hostess told us to enjoy it anyway.
After dessert Giordano brought over some of her delicious house-made limoncello, confirming that we’d been spotted. Throughout our meal, though, the staff was as welcoming to the rest of GiGi’s customers as they were to the restaurant critic.
With a veteran chef at the helm, cooking the food of her choice, I believe GiGi’s can do better.
GiGi’s Cucina Povera
Cardoons and more Sicilian specialties lead the way in ode to peasant cooking.
WHERE: 981 Kenmore Ave. (www.gigiscucinapovera.com, 877-8788)
HOURS: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Starters and salads, $7.95-$14.95; sandwiches, $8.95-$14.95; pastas, $7.95-$21.95; entrees, $18.95-$27.95.
PARKING: Lot behind building.