Stepping Out of the (Pizza) Box

We have a lot of Italian restaurants in Upstate New York. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an immigration boom brought mostly Southern Italians to our shores when that region of Italy became overpopulated. And after the Civil War, American companies recruited in Italy to fill the labor shortage caused by the war. Thankfully, along with those working men came nonnas and papas and recipes and red sauce.

And that's what you find in many of our Italian food institutions: red sauce, meatballs, chicken parm, and pizza: the mainstays of the Italian Ameircan diet that evolved once all these immigrants got here and melded their traditions with the foods available in the new world. I love these dishes, but once in a while, it's fun to find a spot riffing on the old favorites to create something a little different. 

At Gentile's, in Syracuse, eclectic Italian is the order of the day. Well, it's the order everyday, but that's a less elegant turn of phrase. This joint was recommended to me ages ago by my friend Amber, and a couple weeks ago, the perfect opportunity to eat there presented itself in the form of the Miss Central New York Pageant. I met my parents and former Miss TI Morgan there, who had come from Watertown, and we settled right into the soothing, warm atmosphere thanks to the welcoming staff. The exceptional focaccia may have helped as well.

I don't mean to get all romantical about carbs, but this right here is exemplary bread service. Both loaves were fresh that day, tender crumbed, with a wonderfully toothsome exterior. The sweet, aged balsamic swirled in the accompanying olive oil was mellow and full bodied. It was hard to stop cramming it into our mouths, even though we had already ordered bruschetta as an appetizer and were eagerly awaiting its arrival.

And what bruschetta Gentile's is turning out! No simple tomato and basil for these folks - we got a trio of flavorful, inventive creations. The beef and burratta was my favorite - salty, bright and deep with basil pesto, which was creamy and rich. The beef was dried a bit, concentrating its flavor and giving a chewy texture to counter the fluffy cheese and crunchy bread.

The corn and fig with mushroom offering also stood out, with sweet, summery corn lending snap and crunch, while earthy chanterelle mushrooms grounded all that sweetness with deep, woodsy funk.

The last was a bit more conventional, deploying more of that candied balsamic and impressing us with gorgeous, creamy ricotta.

Mom chose the penne alla vodka. Bless her. This dish was ridiculous - porky, creamy, rich, cheesy, and tangy, with absolutely perfectly cooked pasta. I literally just ate dinner, but if I had this in front of me now, I would devour the entire plate and dream tonight of delectable legs of prosciutto wrapping themselves in Parmesan blankets and taking luxurious afternoon naps. Even better than the expertly crafted components of the dish was the finely tuned ratio of pasta to sauce. The al dente penne was enrobed in a rather scant amount of the velvety vodka and tomato, but because the sauce was potent, the result was a symphony - each bite allowing you to taste pasta, pork, cheese, tomato, and booze in perfect harmony.

My rigatoni with chick peas, zucchini, celery root, and pancetta in a cognac cream sauce exhibited the same control and practiced hand. I loved the lightness of this dish, which balanced a good amount of richness, salt, and fat from the sauce and bacon with a homey-ness from the celery root. That celery root and the chick peas grounded the dish just like the chanterelles did on the bruschetta - a fine hallmark indeed from Gentile's wise chef. The cognac cream could have been heavy or cloying, but again, it was used sparingly, lending flavor and cohesion without bulk or heft.

Morg went for the orecchiette with classic Mediterranean treats like kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and goat cheese. It was light and savory, utterly scrumptious; the secret weapon of this dish being cashews for crunch and depth. Genius.

The one, tiny dip in the high tide of the meal came in the form of the shrimp in Dad's soppressata-wrapped shrimp in strawberry sauce. The dish was again, well balanced, delightfully flavored to deliver sweet and salt without heaviness. But unfortunately, the shrimp were kind of tragically overcooked. The result was tough instead of wonderful, which was a total bummer.

We had dessert, of course. Both were very good, of course, though not the most wildly inventive ever. We adored the vanilla bean frosting crowning the hazelnut torte, all flecked with tiny vanilla caviar and resplendently creamy without being too sweet, and the caramel crunch cake sported just enough delicate sea salt to deliver that gorgeous balance of flavors we'd enjoyed all evening.

We unanimously awarded Gentile's an eight on the BHS scale. If not for the sad shrimp, that score would have been a slam dunk 10, and we've wistfully wished several times since that we were back there eating gorgeous pastas. From the subtle strawberry mint water refilled all meal long to the real whipped cream served with the desserts, this dinner was different, memorable, and yes, eclectic. Who would have thought this gem was hiding right in Syracuse, amid so many chicken riggies and red sauce haunts? I'm glad I found it. Your turn! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Gentiles Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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