What’s the Italian word for comfort food? Possibly it’s Gabriella, as in Gabriella Italian Restaurant on Jonestown Road. This is old-school Italian-American food, served with a pitch-perfect marinara sauce.
Gabriella has survived for a dozen years despite an odd location, a pretty good flight of steps up to the restaurant, very little parking, and no mercy for credit card patrons – cash or check only. That’s a tribute to the food and the service, given the other Italian places nearby in a similar price range.
The menu is traditional, with dish descriptions ending in piccata, scaloppini and parmigiana, and we had a very expressive waiter named Mario. Perfect.
As it happened, this Mario was from Mexico, but he likes Italian food.
“Yes, I love it, it’s very good for you, especially the marsalas and franceses we make, nobody else make them!”
He led us through the appetizer specials, but clearly favored the menu items. “I like to recommend you the fried calamari — We also have a sautéed calamari.”
At our table, Susan was a frequent Gabriella customer and seconded the calamari as an app choice. “I’ve been here many times and they do it in a special sauce, butter and garlic, very flavorful, with a secret ingredient, a really hot pepper, that’s amazing.”
We ordered it along with the homemade sweet Italian sausage with peppers, in a light marinara sauce; the Mozzarella Caprese; sautéed calamari with garlic and a white wine sauce, and Asparagus Crostini.
I was blessed with two computer people, Dave and Todd, in the seats beside me — one IT security specialist and one government affairs guy. We talked net neutrality until the apps came, which wasn’t long.
Asparagus Crostini won for the best presentation of the evening, a lattice of spears sauteed with garlic and butter on four crostini.
“Definitely the asparagus was my favorite,” Gloria said. “The grilled bread was very tasty.”
Todd went that way too, after flirting with the sausage. “The asparagus was fantastic. It was actually probably my favorite, now that I’m thinking about it.”
The rest of us voted for the sausage, especially our resident Meatatarian. Well, not verbally, because his mouth was too full, but he gave it thumbs up.
“You could tell the sausage was homemade,” Michelle said. “It wasn’t too chewy and it had really good flavors. The peppers were perfect, they weren’t too bitter, just right.”
If you’re not familiar with the Mode Dining Adventure, we share plates. That’s actually a mild way to put it. If you don’t like other people forking your food, you wouldn’t have fun at a Mode dinner with ten affable strangers poaching on your apps.
What Michelle actually ordered was not the sausage, but the Mozzarella Caprese, a salad in the style of the Isle of Capri. (I love to say that.) It’s not a difficult plate to put together – tomato, mozzarella and basil – but Michelle wasn’t pleased with hers.
“It was okay, I would have liked more basil,” she said. “A little more flavor. But it was okay.”
Also just okay: the calamari. It brought on the first of several not-exactly-favorable squid reviews. It was chewy. Calamari is easy to overcook and hard to hold for very long, and when it showed up later on the seafood plate, it had gone from chewy to rubbery. Why do restaurants insist on offering this petulant product? You got me.
Mario was not shy about promoting it.
“If anybody likes seafood, I’d like to recommend the Piatto del Mare. This one comes with pasta and shrimp, mussels, calamari and clams.” The Plate of the Sea was beautiful when it arrived in front of Gloria, but she wasn’t thrilled.
“I loved the sauce, loved the shellfish,” she said. “But not the calamari. It was rubbery and overcooked.”
Heather had the Fettucine Alfredo. “It was very good; it was a little floury, but it was good.” The floury effect might come from freshly made pasta, where it’s not a flaw but a feature. Fresh pasta is delicate and flavorful, but it’s not something you encounter often in run in the food wilderness that is central Pennsylvania.
Susan’s gnocchi pleased her. Homemade, it came in a pool of red deliciousness, the house marinara sauce, and it was basic comfort food.
Susan: “It was very good, it was nice and doughy.”
Scot: “That’s it? It’s nice and doughy?”
Susan: “It was good.”
Some things you can’t explain.
The Chicken Cardinale with eggplant got good marks from Michelle, but the veal dishes were the best of our entrees. If we were in Kitchen Stadium on Food TV, this would be Battle Veal, a faceoff between Dave’s Veal Francese and Scot’s Veal Piccata.
“The veal was tender enough that I cut it with a fork,” Scot said, “and the sauce was good. It was definitely the best veal piccata I’ve ever had.” I can verify the fork-tender texture, but I didn’t get much sauce because the whole dish was disappearing into Scot..
For Dave, “The Veal Francese was very good, the veal very tender with just enough batter and garlic and butter. Phenomenal.”
The Francese – paper-thin veal in a lemon-butter-wine sauce – drew raves around the table, and Todd had the last word on it: “The veal was by far the best, the Francese. My meal was okay. I wish I would have gone for the veal.”
The coffee was good, as was the lemon sorbet served in a shell of frozen lemon.
This is a gentle place, perfect for family or out-of-town visitors who enjoy traditiaonl Italian-American cuisine. The food is better than you get at Olive Garden, the restaurant is less raucous than Cantone’s.