If you ever find yourself in a roomful of Italian-Americans and are feeling especially naughty, announce that “anyone who knows anything about Italian food knows that sweet sauce isn’t really Italian.”
Then stand back and consider picking some pockets before you slip away under cover of the resulting din. Giacobbi’s Cucina Citta is a new Italian family restaurant in Allentown, but it’s got some experienced operators behind it, including owner Michael Jacobbi, a scion of the Italian-American restaurant family, who ran Carmine’s for more than 20 years.
That experience shows in “Nonna’s” tomato sauce, the house red sauce that arrives on the spaghetti and naps the veal parmesan. It plays the controversy right down the middle, with a pinch of sweetness snuggling up to pork simmered into the sauce, balanced with a nip of chile and bouquet of herbs. In Buffalo tomato-sauce terms, Nonna is a centrist.
Carmine’s, on Transit Road in Clarence, was destroyed by fire last year. Giacobbi’s opened in June with a similar menu, chockablock with red sauce classics, salads, pastas, breads and deck oven pizzas.
[Related: Sharon Cantillon's photos from Giacobbi's]
The former Presto space has olive walls now, and a bar. A mural of a woman scootering past villas decorates a middle room, with bar-height tables. A third area, with regular dining tables, is the only television-free zone.
Those televisions, and a proliferation of small plates and pizzas, makes it a decent spot to watch a game.
Downing a plate of nachos gets even better when Giacobbi’s substitutes triangle-cut fresh pasta sheets for corn tortillas in the fryer. The “Italian nachos” ($10) are topped with Italian sausage, green olives, Hungarian peppers and spicy marinara tomato sauce, covered in cheese and baked to a golden bubbly brown. I would go back for those.
[Related: Restaurant review of Oliver's from last week]
Artichoke fritters ($9) turned out to be five whole hearts battered and fried in a golden crust, but still juicy. Even the artichoke-averse were converted, dunking their share in the gorgonzola dip.
Giacobbi’s crispy fried calamari ($13), tossed with arugula, Kalamata olives, banana peppers and seductively velvety roasted peppers, was piquant and tender.
A short rib meatball ($7) offered Salisbury steak flavor and appropriate mushroom gravy, but not the size or tenderness of other Mulberry-style mega-meatballs.
The bruschetta trio ($8, pictured as main image) was the table’s consensus favorite. It came with grilled crusty sesame-seeded Italian bread, tangy caponata eggplant relish with green olives and peppers, grape-sized ciliegine mozzarella balls with pesto, and warm grape tomatoes sautéed with garlic, dusted with romano cheese. The hearty, well-seasoned vegetables and cheese was simply delicious, leaving me wondering why so many places tolerate bland, lifeless bruschetta.
The small plates were more memorable than the entrees we chose, but there’s no denying they’re a value proposition. These were leftover-guaranteeing helpings of good Italian-American dishes at good prices.
Fruitti di mare ($19) was a profusion of clams, scallops, mussels and calamari in plum tomato sauce, served over linguine. Ordered spicy, the sauce hit that mark, but some of the scallops and mussels ended up chewy.
Chicken Leonardo ($15), served over the broad ribbons of pappardelle pasta, included spinach, artichoke hearts and marinated tomatoes in a creamy sauce with a welcome finishing touch of spiciness. The sauce was more interesting than the standard-issue chicken breast slabs.
A steak and tomato pizza ($15) was a hit, arriving bearing thick, pleasantly pink slices of steak and good tomatoes, for November. Its puffy-fresh, bronze-bottomed crust was loaded with enough cheese, meat and vegetables to feed two adults dinner.
Eggplant lasagna ($15) offered slabs of breaded vegetable layered with ricotta, covered in brown-bubbled mozzarella and tomato sauce, with penne pasta. The eggplant’s astringency let me taste it through the quilt of crumbs and cheese, so I was satisfied.
My veal parmesan ($19) left me wanting. The cutlets were made of real meat, not a frozen shortcut product. But by the time it was breaded, fried, sauced and cheesed, I couldn’t tell by its flavor what sort of meat was under it all. (I regret not trying the brasciole ($18), pork stuffed with egg and prosciutto.)
Desserts included chocolate mousse cake $6.75), cannoli ($2.75) and derby pie ($6.75), a relatively light walnut and chocolate baked concoction served warm with vanilla ice cream. Its nutty crunch and melty chocolate drew me back. The cannoli’s shell was crisp, its filling bland.
Leave the cannoli. Take the derby pie.
Our server helpfully arranged for the delivery of our massive order, and packed up leftovers, but left us unwatered for stretches. She sweetly informed us dessert was complimentary. (Afterwards, when I reviewed the bill and realized we hadn’t gotten the Caesar salad I paid for, I blamed myself for not noticing earlier.)
Then after we declined further alcoholic beverages, she asked three more times. Feeling pressured, I cut short conversation with my friends and left the mostly empty restaurant.
The ending left a sour taste on my night, but that was one visit. If your dinner at Giacobbi’s Cucina Citta is like mine, you’ll get good Italian-American dishes at great prices, and leave lugging leftovers.
Giacobbi's Cucina Citta - 6 plates (out of 10)
Where: 59 Allen St. (at Franklin), 834-4000
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday though Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4-10 p.m. Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday
Price range: Small plates $4-12, pizzas $15-16, entrees $10-19
Wheelchair access: Yes
Email Andrew Galarneau at firstname.lastname@example.org