There are many kinds of eating establishment in the Italian-American repository, from the red-sauce relics and no-frills pizzerias to trendy trattorias, stylish locandes and hipster osteries. But what there is only one of — and to put my money where my mouth is, I’ll bet you a brand-new pair of Ferragamos to a pair of your oldest, shabbiest sneakers — is a joint like Gianna’s.
The first thing I loved about Gianna’s, located in the unlovely surroundings of the Executive Park strip mall in Yonkers, was the parking. You see, the last time I was in Yonkers, a month ago, I spent so long looking for a parking space that I managed to miss my appointment. Not so at Gianna’s, where you park right outside the front door — any closer and you’d be driving through the plate glass window and right up to your seat at the table. And the second thing I loved was the welcome, not from a host or manager, but from a togged-up chef, seated in the restaurant’s party room just to the left of the front door, head on hand like Rodin’s “Thinker,” deep in thought, who sprung to attention as we entered and greeted us, as much as masked smiles and elbow-bumping will allow, like long lost friends — even though he had never once before clapped eyes on us.
So far, so terribly good and it only got better. A server appeared straight out of central casting — central casting that is, for a server in an Italian-American restaurant. Think Cher in “Moonstruck” (had she played a restaurant server,) but with flame red hair and a sideline in Covid wisecracks. “Sit where you want,” said Cher, and when we sat where we wanted — at the only table for four in a sea of tables for two, which might have rattled another server — she removed the two surplus covers without demur and sweetly asked what she could fix us to drink.
Well, that was an easy one. The Castellucio Sangiovese may not have been the most elegant expression of this grape, but at $34 a bottle, scarcely more than you’d pay in the liquor store, we were happy drinking it till the cows came home — or at least until the 10 p.m. curfew, at which time we were summarily dismissed, but with expressions of genuine regret and exhortations to return soon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. If Gianna’s menu were a star sign, for sure it would be a Gemini — split personality. On the one hand, with its chicken parmigiana and its veal marsala, it’s a throwback to a simpler, more innocent age, you know, meat and two veg, Dean Martin on the loop. On the other, it’s shot through with sophistication — roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and walnuts, pappardelle with beef short ribs and a garden vegetable ragù. But either way, let me tell you, the food is sublime. Fried calamari came as a teetering tower of golden trinkets, which could have passed for exotic rings or bangles. Burrata, a great wobbling mound of the creamiest buffalo mozzarella, indecently rich, rippled with a slice of wafer-thin prosciutto and topped with the softest, creamiest roasted peppers, was slathered in good olive oil. Then came the pasta, house-made ravioli, the lightest, airiest parcels filled with the sweetest, tenderest lobster; and penne alla vodka — a dish I have never really understood (the cultural and culinary relationship between Italians and Russians being somewhat murky,) but one which, done right, as it was here, reaches the heights. Next up, chicken scarpariello, a dish from the Calabrian south and a house specialty, with sausage, potatoes and hot peppers for that crucial touch of heat. And as for veal piccata, which I don’t think I’ve eaten in 20 years, with its white wine and capers, it was an almost Proustian veal moment.
No room for pizzas, but they are best sellers here, and all night long — or rather, until the 10 p.m. witching hour — the pizza-eating great and good of Yonkers were stopping by to pick up their orders.
Don’t get me started on Gianna’s décor. Not the high-backed, deep-buttoned, faux-leather banquettes in a disarming variant of Dodge blue (but why not let’s be kind and call it Egyptian blue?), nor the white ceiling tiles which are simultaneously every makeover show host’s nightmare and delight. Because, actually, taken as a “look,’ untrammeled by any decorator’s art, it is all rather charming. As for the importunate football, enemy to private conversation, played endlessly on the restaurant’s TV screen, even that I couldn’t bring myself to mind too much in this extraordinarily convivial place. (“That TV,” observed my guest, “ is practically the size of the football field itself.”)
When the bill finally came, I discovered a wet, blotchy, almost illegible slip of paper. “It’s the Clorox,” explained our sever, our very own Cher. “They even sanitize the plastic bill presenters now.”
“Yonkers needs more places like this,” reads an old press review posted on the restaurant’s website and dating from goodness knows when. Correction: Everywhere needs more places like this, but since this restaurant is a one-off, I doubt anywhere will get another Gianna’s.
For reservations, visit giannasyonkers.com