SYRACUSE — If you're headed to Syracuse and want to get some good Italian food, what do you think of? Grimaldi's? Joey's? Carrabba's?
How about Gentile's? Gentile's restaurant is subtitled "eclectic Italian," and rightly so. There's calamari and eggplant and risotto and gnocchi. But there's also artichoke stew with pistachio and pancetta. Fennel and Belgian endive salad with apples, dates and pecans. Farfalle with smoked pork and pear ragu. Seared lobster with baby clams, prosciutto, tomatoes, cilantro and parsley.
It's a feast for foodies in an out-of-the-way downtown location. It's totally unassuming from the outside, even a little dumpy. But inside Gentile's (pronounced gen-TIL-ees), you get the feel of an old-time neighborhood restaurant. A long, almost antique bar beckons. Small, tall tables, perfect for two, give the bar area a bistro feel. A tightly tabled dining room conjures up images of a backstreet restaurant somewhere in Italy.
Chef/owner Kevin Gentile uses fresh, seasonal ingredients with busy pairings that one wouldn't think would work. Like grilled asparagus with morel mushrooms and goat cheese drizzled with carrot juice and arugula oil. Or shrimp and scallops set atop guacamole in a caper, orange, almond and sherry wine butter. And pink pepper-crusted chicken over soybeans with a cucumber/honeydew sauce drizzled with cilantro/lime vinaigrette topped with Feta cheese.
We began with something seemingly traditional — escargot. But not the escargot you usually get with rubbery snails stuffed in a mushroom cap and garlic-buttered to death.
Kevin's escargot were set atop polenta and served with pesto and provolone fondue ($10.95). The escargot had a pleasing texture; the polenta had a little bit of a cheese flavor. What made the dish tasty was the "fondue," a sauce made of pureed, smoky peppadew peppers and melted provolone cheese. The sauce took the dish from what could have been so-so to so-special.
Artichoke bottoms ($11.95) were also special. Three good-sized artichoke bottoms served as edible cups, filled with jumbo lump crabmeat topped with a light coating of breadcrumbs and finished with a generous drizzle of saffron butter. Was that a squeeze of lemon in there, too? The buttery sauce acted like a vinaigrette that coated the greens underneath the artichokes, offering another palate pleaser.
Most every Italian restaurant in Central New York has its version of Utica greens.
Gentile's version ($9.95) consists of sautéed escarole mixed with spicy sausage, pancetta, cherry peppers and broccoli, topped with cheese and toasted breadcrumbs.
The sausage and cherry peppers provide noticeable heat without destroying the taste buds. There was still a bit of crunch left in the wilted escarole and the addition of broccoli provided even more desirable texture, as did the breadcrumbs, which were really more like croutons.
Between courses we enjoyed two crusty breads, one white, one multi-grain. A lovely chickpea spread was provided along with herbed olive oil jazzed up with a squiggle of balsamic vinegar.
A pasta dish using tubular rigatoni noodles ($20.95) was tossed with scallops, chorizo sausage, onions and grilled tomatoes (our waiter referred to them as "melted" tomatoes) and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil, topped with grated manchego cheese (a tangy Spanish cheese made from the milk of sheep).
The scallops were plump and tasty, a touch salty as though they had been brined. Our waiter had told us that they would be cooked "medium-rare," which explained their perfect consistency. Grilled tomatoes reminded us of roasted tomatoes because of their intensified flavor.
Stuffed chicken ($17.95) was filled with spinach and goat cheese and set in a pool of red pepper cream sauce enhanced with a touch of horseradish. Although not in the menu description, the chicken came breaded and lightly pan fried which helped keep the meat moist and tender.
Here's a busy dish: smoked salmon, parsnips, grilled pineapple and asparagus in a sauce of sour cream, goat cheese and pink peppercorns, tossed with gemelli pasta (resembling braided rope).
The smoked salmon wasn't overly smoky or salty, as sometimes is the case. A hint of sweetness from the pineapple tempered the savory salmon. We had forgotten there were parsnips in the dish until we re-read the menu description!
The sauce was the amazing part of the dish — velvety smooth, quite rich and delicious. The peppercorns took the sauce from being a somewhat simple cheese sauce to another level.
The only disappointing dish was the filet mignon ($27.95), set atop goat cheese polenta and featuring an applewood-smoked bacon and maple demi glace. We ordered it medium-rare but it came out rare, at best. Not a problem for us, but if it was, I'm sure we could have asked to have it cooked a little more.
The problem was the intense searing of the steak — charred to the point that a bitter, burned flavor permeated the sauce. And there was way too much sauce, completely smothering the prestige piece of meat.
In the restaurant's defense, I had a spectacular grilled veal chop when I dined there in the fall.
The chicken and steak dishes came with a side plate of roasted carrots and very flavorful Isreali couscous, a wheat-based pasta the size of a small pea.
Our waiter brought out a dessert tray to tantalize us, and it worked.
Although none were made at the restaurant, they were high quality products from one of their suppliers. Desserts averaged $5 apiece.
A forest fruit sorbet was very good, dark purple in color (we assume blackberries and raspberries). Refreshing; not too sweet. A thick, cinnamon-y cannoli shell was filled to order, the shell crisp and crunchy, the ricotta filling also not overly sweet.
A hazelnut torte and a layer cake with yummy white chocolate frosting completed our dessert indulgence. Honestly, our entrée portions were substantial, so by this time we had no right to even think about desserts.
Dinner for four totaled $158.20 before tip. Our server was attentive without being overbearing and had a very good knowledge of the food preparations. He kept our water glasses filled with very subtle "fruit water" from a large pitcher that had sliced lemons and oranges toward the bottom (the fruit in the water changes daily).
The restaurant has a very nice selection of wine, but the night we were there, a Tuesday, diners are allowed to bring in their own favorite bottle with no corkage fee. We picked up a Pio Cesare Dolcetto D'Alba, slightly fruity and from the Piedmont region of Italy, at the Savvy Wine Cellar in Camillus, just west of the city.
If you're looking for pizza, spaghetti or lasagna, you won't find it at Gentile's.
You will find well-prepared, creative upscale cuisine with a touch of Italian in many of the dishes.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
305 Burnet Ave.
Self-described as "eclectic Italian," Gentile's offers well-prepared upscale cuisine with a touch of Italian in many of the dishes.
HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday
5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
4 to 8 p.m. Sunday (October through May)
Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday
APPETIZER PICKS: Escargot set atop polenta, served with pesto and provolone fondue; artichoke bottoms with jumbo lump crabmeat and saffron butter
ENTRÉE PICKS: Gemelli with smoked salmon, parsnips, grilled pineapple and asparagus in a sour cream, goat cheese and pink peppercorn sauce; stuffed chicken with spinach and goat cheese in a red pepper cream sauce; rigatoni with scallops, chorizo, onions and grilled tomatoes topped with manchego cheese