Review: GianMarco's The Place To Go For Italian

721 Broadway, Homewood

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By Deborah Lockridge

Yes, Virginia, there really is an Italian restaurant in Birmingham. It's called GianMarco's, and you'd better have a reservation, because it's one popular place.

We had heard nothing but good things about GianMarco's, including testimonials from other local restaurant owners/chefs. About the only thing that disappointed was that we just didn't have enough room to try everything we wanted to.

GianMarco's is located in a residential neighborhood on Broadway, near the Green Springs end. It shares a building with an antique store, and there's a cleaner's in the next building. This small retail oasis is surrounded by Homewood's charming older houses. Parking can be hard to find.

You walk in the door into a cozy bar, walking between patrons sitting at the bar and a line of small café tables for two along the wall. We were graciously greeted by Giovanni Respinto, the owner's father.

GianMarco's is owned by Bronx native Gianni Respinto, formerly executive chef of East City Grill in Brookwood Village, who runs it with the help of his brother, Marco, and his father. Respinto grew up in New York working in the family restaurant, Rocco's in Greenwich Village.

The large dining room is decorated with artwork related to wine, and indeed the restaurant is known for its affordable wine list. It just begs to order a bottle to share. The atmosphere is white-tablecloth, comfortable, neighborhood gathering spot with very reasonable prices.

On our first visit, we started out with the pistachio crusted fried oysters on tomato crostini ($8). It was like a symphony of textures and tastes in the mouth. The oysters were fried to tender, melt-in-your mouth perfection, served hot, atop thin crispy slices of French bread, with a cool tomato relish. The contrast of hot and cold, tender and crispy, was just amazing, and the flavors complemented each other beautifully. They were so good we ordered them again on our second visit, and they were just as wonderful.

On our second visit, we also ordered shrimp scampi over fried green tomatoes ($9). Three large, perfectly cooked shrimp were served over thick green-almost-pink tomatoes fried, not in Southern-style cornmeal, but in bread crumbs Italian style, with a subtle garlic, butter and wine sauce. Other appetizer choices include Italian spinach and artichoke dip, fried calamari, steamed mussels or clams, beef carpaccio, crab cake, three-cheese-and-pesto torta (which a friend confided was fantastic). There are also several soups, including pasta e fagioli, roman-style egg drop and tortellini.

On both visits, we shared a Tre Color chopped salad ($6), a delicious combination of iceberg lettuce, radicchio, tomatoes, red onions, artichoke hearts, olives, caper berries and parmesan with a light balsamic vinaigrette. The kitchen thoughtfully went ahead and divided the salad into two separate plates, although we would have been happy to share a plate with two forks. Other salad choices include a Caesar, fresh mozzarella and tomatoes, and mixed baby greens with apples, walnuts and gorgonzola.

Next comes the pasta course. There were so many tempting dishes, it was hard to decide. On our first visit, we split an order of lasagna Bolognese style. This is rich and delicious, baked with a topping of Bechamel sauce. Again, it was so good we had to have it again on the second visit, when we also sampled the wild mushroom ravioli ($17). Large, tender pastry pillows offered a subtle mushroom flavor, served with wilted baby spinach and a marinara sauce that tasted of long simmering.

Alas, after all that, there wasn't much room left to sample the entrees. On our first visit, we split an order of veal piccata ($19), which again the kitchen kindly split on two plates for us. It was tender with just the right touch of lemon and butter. You can also get veal marsala; veal or eggplant parmigiana; seafood risotto; baked scampi; fritto misto (flash-fried seafood selection); grilled pork tenderloin in chianti sauce with mushrooms and garlic mashed potatoes; chicken Francese; grilled sausage and peppers; pan-roasted grouper with calamata olives, garlic, caper berries, potatoes and marinara, and more. There are also blackboard specials each night; we were sorely tempted by the osso bucco, but just didn't have room.

On our second visit, we skipped the entrée so we could have dessert. Deborah has been craving some real New-York style cheesecake, and GianMarco's delivered. Unadulterated by cherries, strawberries, Oreos, caramel, chocolate or any of that other garbage, it was the real deal. We also ordered an apple crostata with cinnamon crème anglaise. The crust had a nice, rustic homemade taste and texture. Unfortunately, there was too much crust, not enough apple. We've had better. But that was the only disappointing food note of two entire evenings. Other dessert choices include a popular flourless chocolate torte and tiramisu. And, as we would hope from a restaurant with this pedigree, we had some of the best espresso we've ever had, and perhaps the best cappuccino ever.

Our server the first visit was competent enough, but seemed a bit distracted. The second time was better, but you can tell these folks are busy! Another note: Our first visit was on an unseasonably warm fall evening. We were seated right next to the kitchen, and it was uncomfortably warm – although it was fascinating to watch, through the deli display case where they keep their meat and fish for all to see its quality. Next time we go in the summer, we'll be sure to dress with that in mind.

For years we have lamented Birmingham's lack of a really good Italian restaurant, although there are a number of good pizza places. We used to come up from Tuscaloosa to go to Petruccelli's, but never really warmed up to their larger location. Romeo's was charming, until Mama Romeo died and it closed up. Ciao was good at one time, but isn't even Italian anymore. Italian Villa was never the same after getting new owners. Lovoy's is charming in its own way, but still didn't quite fit the bill. A couple of other popular local placed disappointed with rude service or poor-quality food. Maybe we were spoiled by the fact that Deborah grew up near St. Louis, which has a healthy population of Italian-Americans and their restaurants, or by several visits to New York City, where there's a great little Italian spot, it seems, on nearly every block.

Whatever the case, the search is over. GianMarco's is the place to go. 

Published December 2005

(Editor's update, August 2007: We continue to go to GianMarco's regularly. We finally had a chance to have the osso bucco special, and it was wonderful. The pan roast is awesome comfort food, and we also love the bucatini dish. The giant meatballs on the Spaghetti with Marco's Sunday Sauce are so tender you wonder how they stay together. The service is still sometimes a little distracted, but we wouldn't hesitate to recommend GianMarco's.)