Skip To Content

Foodie Friday: Super service and modern feel make Giovanni’s an Italian eatery worth visiting

By Tobi Cohen on November 28, 2014

“Service, service, service,” is what sets Giovanni’s Ristorante apart, says general manager and tonight’s Maitre D’, Fabio Vitagliano.

It’s a motto that would explain the Italian eatery’s longevity on Preston Street – it’s been here for more than 30 years – but it’s only part of the fine dining experience. And make no mistake, dinner at Giovanni’s is an experience.

With the exception of pizza, I’m not one to dine out on Italian often. I find many Italian restaurants, especially those in Little Italy, either kitschy or old fashioned.

Frankly, it’s not hard to prepare a decent pasta dish at home these days so unless I’m really in the mood for, ahem, bottomless salad and garlic loaf, Italian isn’t my go-to dinner out.

For Giovanni’s, however, I’d make an exception.

Extensively renovated two-and-a-half years ago, it’s not your grandma’s Italian restaurant – though it is owned by a 74-year-old grandma of two named Lisa Pollastrini whom staff describe as “beautiful, elegant, sophisticated” – like Sophia Loren.

It’s modern and elegant inside and out.  Chandeliers dangle from glossy, reflective ceilings. White cloth and napkins adorn the tables. A very cool sliding chrome ladder helps bar manager Sara Rambharose reach the top shelf.  There’s no attempt to find space-saving wine decanters, as each is more elaborate than the next. There are fresh flowers in the ladies room.

It’s a busy Wednesday night when my dinner date and I arrive and the host takes our coats.  We’re seated at the bar where Rambharose is close at hand to answer our questions.

There are several couples and groups of businessmen in the main dining area, while a party of 18 nurses celebrate an event in a backroom equipped with a large screen TV for presentations.

A group of young, casually-dressed 20 or 30-somethings take a seat at the bar while staff prepare a spot downstairs in a tucked-away private room that brings to mind a hidden card room in a gangster flick.

Photo from Giovanni's Ristorante Facebook page.

Photo from Giovanni’s Ristorante Facebook page.

Also in the basement is a wine cellar filled with about 200 different bottles. Giovanni’s is known for its extensive wine list and Vitagliano treats us to a tour after dinner, proudly pointing out the Chianti Gold signed by the winery’s owner, the “pride and joy” that is the Chateau Mouton Rothschild and what he believes to be the only Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades Champagne available in the city.

By the bottle, wines range from $34 for a Konzelmann Chardonnay from Niagara to $9,975 for a 1999 Cristal Roederer double magnum Champagne. The latter is what Khloe Kardashian and her entourage were drinking when they stopped by on Halloween while in town for a haunted carnival event, Rambharose says.

We stick with the by-the-glass offerings, of which there are numerous wine, Champagne and Prosecco options ranging in price from $11-$25.

The menu is also quite extensive and there are both lunch and nightly specials.  Dinner prices can range from $22 to $35 for pasta. A veal parmigiana entre costs about $26 while an assorted seafood platter for two will run you $180.

Vitagliano says the restaurant is keen to expand its clientele. Lunch, he says, can be quick and affordable, and portions are big so there’s nothing stopping couples from sharing a four-course meal.

You also won’t find the words “no substitutions” on the menu.

“We’ll pretty much put together whatever you want,” says Rambharose who took some liberties with our meals to give us a taste of both the dinner specials and the pastas.

I’m told they do this with all their customers, not just those writing an article about the place! For instance, Rambharose had the kitchen add two grilled jumbo shrimp to my dinner date’s appetizer of sea scallops and shaved fennel salad, something she says she does regularly for her customers even though it’s not listed on the menu. (FYI: My date reports his appetizer was cooked perfectly. He was pleasantly surprised by the tangy fennel, which we both initially thought was fettuccini.)

Photo by Tobi Cohen.

Photo by Tobi Cohen.

We began our meal with a Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin Champagne, an amuse bouche of crostini with bruschetta and creamy artichoke spread and a generous portion of black olives and pepperoncinis on the side. A plate of olive oil and roasted rosemary toasted buns also arrived.

Rambharose next paired my Caesar salad with a lovely Pinot Grigio Pasqua from Veneto, Italy.  Albeit light on the bacon, my salad was heavy on the fresh parmigiano and creamy dressing – which I happen to love.

Next up was a medium bodied Barolo Batasiolo Piedmonte to go with an off-menu pasta duo of house-made Agnolotti stuffed with ricotta and spinach in a creamy tomato sauce and gnocchi with tomato basil sauce and buffalo mozzarella. (Full orders of both are on the menu.) The pastas were simple but flavourful and cooked to perfection. Gnocchi is one pasta I can never get right at home.  Executive chef Romeo Venturino and his team’s puffy potato pasta had the perfect ratio of mush-through-your-teeth to stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth:

Photo by Tobi Cohen.

Photo by Tobi Cohen.

 

For my main course I had the special – a stuffed 12 oz. veal chop served on the bone with prosciutto and provolone and covered in a peppercorn sauce. It was served on a bed of spinach, alongside roasted green beans, red peppers, potatoes and zucchini. It was so good, I couldn’t help myself: I picked up the bone when nobody was watching to get every last bite. If I had one complaint, it would be that they could have stuffed it even more. Rambharose paired it with an Amarone Pasqua from the Veneto region:

Photo by Tobi Cohen.

Photo by Tobi Cohen.

 

We capped things off with an unbaked plain cheesecake served with blackberries and raspberries and a chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream. Rambharose served it up with her signature Pick-Me-Up, a creamy espresso martini made with Bailey’s and secret ingredients she won’t divulge.

The chocolate soufflé burst like lava cake when you sliced in. It was made with dark chocolate, which cut the sweetness nicely. The cheesecake was simple, light and more sweet than tart. I liked it a lot, which says something since cheesecake is among the few desserts I usually pass on.

With each course came a friendly “buon appetito” and somebody was always there with fresh pepper and parmigiano before I could even think to ask.

“I don’t want just good food,” Vitagliano says again of that service mandate. “I have a customer base of 1,000. I know their birthdays, what they like to drink, where they like to sit.”

Well this reporter will certainly be back. We’ll see if he remembers me.

Giovanni’s Ristorante is located at 362 Preston Street. They are open from Mon – Fri from 11 am – close and on weekends from 5 pm. Call 613-234-3156 to book your reservations. You can view their menu online.