BY CLAIRE McCURDY
153 E 45th St. (Between Lex and 3rd Avenues)
Tel. 212-557-5555 / genteny.com/
Monday – Friday 11:30AM – 10PM
Saturday 4PM – 10
Gente, a charming northern Italian restaurant, is ideally located (E. 45th St.) to catch the voluminous commuter traffic eddying through Grand Central. But even if it were located in the middle of the Mojave Desert it would be irresistibly drawing the customers in.. And for some of us, who did grow up in the Mojave Desert, culinarily speaking, Gente would certainly have drawn us in — to sample its wonderful Northern Italian cooking. Rich, subtle, intense, pungent! The food would have been a revelation.
For me, growing up in 60’s in the northeast US , far from a major metropolitan area, Italian food in the malls was spaghetti and meatballs soaked in red sauce—or gravy as they call it in Philadelphia. Think canned Chef Boyardee. Not a gourmet experience.
This pasta and indeed, all of the food served at Gente, is as far from the meatballs and gravy as it could possibly get. It is truly a feast for the senses- brilliantly colored, scented, and of course, a taste sensation. If I ever again pass the Chef’s cans in the supermarket aisles, en route to the arugula, I will swiftly rush past.
Gente’s modest exterior belies a very spacious and comfortable interior with a twist—dozens of blown up black and white stills of 60’s starlets, many Italian, which makes it all dramatic and also offsets the warm wooden flooring and tables. Recently renovated, it is very comfortable and relaxing. Owner/restauranteur Jay Mitchell, Manager Etnik Gashi and his staff are charming, courteous, ready to educate you about the menu, and determined to get the plates swiftly to your table.
And it’s a happy crowd inside. When you enter, even as early as 7:00 p.m., there is a contented buzz among the diners, and they tend to linger long past the end of the meal – always a good sign.
I came to Gente with no preconceptions. My own experience with Italian food has tended to be with the southern red sauce – or with the quixotic food of Venice- and while much of it has been delicious, I knew that this would be quite different. And it was. What an amazing meal! Rich with homemade pasta, and luxurious risotto, , pungent, crisp lightly dressed vegetables, each plate offered a new taste experience.
The first dish that came to my table was the salumi platter . It resembled a garden . A sampler of starters featuring a mini pizza, a mini caprese salad, a hearty bruschetta, white beans, and an incredible bundle of arugula wilted with oil, lemon, and garlic wrapped in fresh prosciutto. This last was a meal in itself and a great introduction to all the courses.
The second plate was tagliolini –a light, but sumptuous homemade pasta – with gigantic wheels of shrimp. The pasta was black and white, very colorful but entirely natural. The black pasta partially colored and flavored with squid ink - brilliant set against the giant pink shrimp, as well as delicious. Left to myself I would have shied away from the squid ink and thus deprived myself of a fine treat.
The third plate was a risotto with spinach and shrimp—here is an alternative version with mushrooms, equally delicious. As this was my first risotto, and I knew nothing of its composition except that it was of rice and took a long time to cook, I was really delighted to taste a slight crunchiness offsetting the creamy rich sauce. And of course, the wilted spinach and robust shrimp. Not rice pudding! And not spaghetti. But a wholly satisfying savory meal to itself.
The meal was served with sparkling Prosecco and ended with homemade biscotti and a luscious liqueur flavored with biscotti, and topped off with cappuccino. As there were several thunderstorms, I was more than happy to linger, savor the tastes, take in the crowd and relax.
Given the prime location, Gente’s prix fixe dinner is a pretty reasonable $35, with an additional $7 for a glass of wine. It is a good bargain. If you choose to go ala carte for dinner, the antipasti and salads range from 9$ to $16. Pizza, $18; risotto, $23, pasta ranges from $18 to $24. Secondi (a combination of meat and vegetable ) ranges from $20 to $30; sweets, $9; and aperitifs, $8-10.
My compliments go to this chef and his magic. And I will certainly be back!