We stepped into the soft golden light of Gianni’s Cafe on cold winter night and it was like stepping into a cozy Italian courtyard cafe. The rustic tan walls are covered with stenciled Italian phrases and a large mural of an archway looking out into an Italian village. Old Blue Eyes sings softly over the sound system underneath the babble of conversation from couples having a midweek date and a few tables of friends having drinks. The space is intimate and alive with the feeling that the staff is catching up with their regulars.
The first thing to the table was the house bread—crusty, warm, and soft. A small dish of dipping sauce comes with it—a thick layer of olive oil tinged with garlic, shreds of basil, and a healthy helping of shredded parmesan cheese. The quality of both won out over our better judgement and we each had a couple of slices.
We started the evening with a classic from the Appetizers menu, Sausage and Peppers. The dish is coated with a layer of tangy red sauce swimming with herbs and little crumbles of sausage. The sliced and grilled sausages are perfectly seasoned, not spicy but very flavorful and distinct. The peppers are soft and soaked in sauce providing juicy sweetness, a little crunch, and a touch of acidity. This dish is the real deal. So hearty and warm, it was the perfect antidote to the season outside.
Also from the Appetizers, the delicate and creamy Ricotta Stuffed Eggplant was the exact opposite of the flavorful sausage and peppers. The eggplant is sliced thin and fried, rolled as a casing around a generous dollop of creamy, mild ricotta cheese. A toasted layer of melted mozzarella covers all three eggplant rolls on the plate providing a slightly salty, cheesy cap. A small pool of marinara adds a touch of brightness to the comforting subtlety of the other elements on the plate.
We had several people recommend Gianni’s Pescatore as we moved into the entrees. It’s a permanent fixture of their specials menu. As our waitress set the platter down between us she said, “ You know how it is with Italians—cook once, eat for three days.” This thing is huge. It’s a bed of linguini pasta soaking in a beautifully developed red zesty broth of tomatoes and white wine. Those flavors, bolstered by chopped peppers, onions, and spinach, are the bedrock of the dish, but it also comes with a cavalcade of beautifully cooked seafood. The platter is ringed with oysters and clams, their shells invitingly open for easy access; full size shrimp; tender scallops; and chopped rings of calamari. The tastes and textures wonderfully complemented the pasta dish underneath.
From their House Specialties, we selected another pasta dish. The Country Rigatoni rounds up all the hallmark adjectives of comfort food—tasty, hearty, creamy, filling—and delivers them in one exemplary package. Thick, slightly al dente rigatoni noodles are lathered in a Suprema sauce—a combination of marinara and alfredo sauces. This in itself would be enough, but they add the flavors and textures of chopped chicken, crumbles of savory sausage, and bright pops of cooked peas. It’s immediately addictive and incredibly satisfying.
After our deliriously heavy dinner, we needed something light for dessert. Enter the Panna Cotta: straight from its elegant mold this pudding-like concoction of sweet cream arrives over a crosshatch of honey with a dollop of whipped cream, with some pops of bright color from some maraschino cherries, and decorative cranberries. It was the perfect light and creamy response to the meal that had come before it, the honey teasing out a hidden layer of sweetness within the subtle dessert. With an Italian coffee, it was the perfect capper to a stellar meal.
Gianni’s Cafe is located at 20505 N. Rand Road in Kildeer, 847-550-8872, gianniscafe.com.