Every neighborhood has a Southern Italian-style restaurant the neighbors swear by. A place that's perfect for the casual night out eating pizza and pasta and drinking something robust and red. If the neighbors are lucky, that place has a chef with a thick accent and a tomato-sauce-stained apron just like the one his nonna used to wear back in old Napoli — or thereabouts.
Of course, it's even better if the chef is the owner, and better yet if his wife runs the store, making for a come-on-a-over-to-a-my-house situation irresistible to those of us for whom Italian food is really American food writ large — and eaten with gusto. Gaspare's — named for Gaspare Trani, whose "Cucina Napoletana" straddles the busy corner off Lake City Way in Maple Leaf — is exactly that kind of place.
Opened in 1991, the original Gaspare's was a 10-table trattoria where you'd stand in line with a cast of thousands in hopes of getting a seat and getting your hands on one of the boss's excellent pizzas — which you'd eat slowly, by candlelight, under a canopy of fishnet while knocking back a carafe of vino rosso.
Cut to 1995, when the Chinese restaurant next door moved across the street. In a justified attempt to offer more Gaspare's to more neighbors, that space was annexed, expanding the kitchen, doubling seating capacity and turning this funky romantic little hangout (still intact up front, though not quite so romantic) into a spacious family-friendlier restaurant.
Ever the workaholic, Trani concluded that if one restaurant is good, two must be better, so, in 1997, he handed over his recipes to chef Camillo Danh, left his wife, Dianne, in charge of Gaspare's and joined the Belltown boom with restaurant No. 2: Il Gambero. Though this darling brick-lined trattoria was perfect for making like Lady and the Tramp with the linguine, last summer, after boom had turned to bust, Il Gambero closed and Gaspare returned to his namesake kitchen.
Here he composes an appealing antipasto misto ($8.95), a shareable starter whose lightly grilled vegetables, roasted peppers and caponata glistens with olive oil. The latter begs to be spread on rustic bread that arrives early on, courtesy of prompt and friendly servers whose recitation of the specials may include insalata Caprese ($10.95), a generous portion of fresh basil-bedecked mozzarella paired with tomatoes whose moment in the sun has (finally!) arrived.
A quintet of pizzas brings pleasure to those whose perfect pie is a thin-crusted round with puffy edges that refuse to contain copious amounts of oozing mozzarella. For everyone else, there is pizza alla Napoletana, with garlic, tomato sauce and oregano: hold the cheese ($9.95). Gaspare's combination of molto mozz and a bright tomato sauce rings my chimes whether I'm sampling the simple basil-scented Margherita ($11.95) or a hefty capricciosa whose crust runneth over with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and Kalamatas ($12.95).
Eggplant Parmigiana, a frequent special, is superb. Banish visions of thick-sliced eggplant, breaded, fried and cheeseified. This eggplant lover's ideal ($14.95) hies to the classic Southern Italian tradition. Slender eggplant slices layered with scant amounts of tomato sauce and cheese create a lasagne-lookalike whose prominent flavor is — as it should be — the seductive purple fruit.
The lengthy menu is heavy with pasta, rife with pollo (chicken) and offers a trio of vitello (veal). A romaine salad, topped (but unfortunately not tossed) with an oil-and vinegar-based dressing, is complimentary with these entrees. Better to pay the $2.95 surcharge and sub a Caesar.
Convinced I'd hit an "off" night when pollo al pesto — a buxom boneless breast smothered in creamy pesto sauce ($16.95) — arrived gummy from too much flour-dusting and too little time in the sauté pan, I was later proved right. Sampled again, this time sauced with mushrooms and Marsala ($17.95), the chicken was properly seared outside, tender within and well worth recommending.
A sucker for the salty, citrusy flavors that complement veal piccata, I was disheartened by a pale sauté of tasteless veal overwhelmed by fresh rosemary ($18.95). But I found the sunny marriage of salt (capers) and citrus (lemon) in one of the "Speciali Della Casa": linguine con gamberi, large prawns doing the backstroke in a buttery sauce sparked with white wine, lemon and capers ($18.95). Other house specialties include seafood risotto ($18.95), a saffron-scented dish rich with shellfish and squid that won't leave you much room for spumoni. Opt for the penne Siciliani instead ($14.95) and you'll get a light, luscious mix of eggplant, diced mozzarella, fresh tomato sauce and a kiss of ricotta that leaves room for tiramisu ($4.95) and deserves a standing ovation.
Speaking of deserved standing-Os: You haven't lived till you've seen hostess Dianne Trani take off her reading glasses, doll herself up and bring in her backup band and former girl group (the fabulous Fenderskirts) for a rollicking night of jazz, swing and bebop. Every two months, her reserved-seats-only concerts (call for details) have fans dancing in the aisles while wine corks pop, pasta gets passed and a great time is had by all.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or email@example.com