It’s been more than a year now since Geno’s ran away and joined the circus.
The old Geno’s, beloved as it may have been to its regulars, was a one-trick pony: a traditional Italian restaurant with heaping plates of pasta, checkered tablecloths, wood-paneled walls, well-seasoned waitresses and Frank and Dean on the jukebox.
Enter chef/owner William Webster, the man behind downtown hipster hangout Zola, who spent six months on renovations before reopening the new-look Geno’s in October 2011.
The décor is a mixture of modern industrial and vintage circus, with metal siding from clown trailers and striped tent cloth adorning the walls beneath the high, open-beam ceiling. Servers are young and casually efficient. Instead of the Rat Pack, you’re more likely to hear experimental poetry on open mic night.
And while there’s still plenty of pasta, it shares the regular menu with the likes of chicken nachos; strawberry salmon, huckleberry steak and tofu salads; and a hummus sub sandwich. (Sandwiches, pizza and pasta can be ordered gluten-free.)
The creativity gets kicked up another notch with the rotating list of fresh sheet specials, served with one thing that hasn’t changed since the old days: extremely reasonable prices.
During a recent dinner visit, we sampled two fresh sheet offerings: Champagne true cod and grilled New York steak (each $9). The vanilla-accented champagne cream sauce, with shallots and pickled ginger, played nicely with the moist, flaky fish.
The steak, seemingly larger than the advertised 4 ounces, was perfectly cooked to the requested medium and topped with a bleu cheese demi-glace.
It was accompanied by macaroni and cheese, which sounded like an odd coupling until you tasted it. Done up in a thick, lush cheese sauce starring smoked Gouda, it was more than a match for the meat – sort of the strongman of mac ’n’ cheese. (It’s also available as an entrée with chicken and bacon.)
A pair of pasta dishes off the main menu proved equally satisfying. The seafood Alfredo ($15) featured tender shrimp, scallops and clams in a garlic-spiked sauce that was creamy but not overly rich. (Other sauce options are marinara, or extra-virgin olive oil and garlic.)
A hearty helping of meat lasagna ($13) – fresh pasta sheets layered with pepperoni, sausage, cheese and a Bolognese sauce studded with more sausage, beef and veal – was pleasantly filling but decidedly lighter than the jumbo indulgence of my distant Geno’s memory.
Pasta dishes come with serviceable if unremarkable garlic bread sticks. A Caesar or house salad can be added for another $2, an option also offered (as well as fries) with the assortment of sandwiches on the menu.
The chicken parmesan sandwich ($8) is a solid take on the classic concept. A moist, lightly breaded chicken breast – tender enough to cut easily with a butter knife – is tucked into a chewy French roll along with mozzarella and just enough zesty marinara to make it saucy but not sloppy.
Pizza dough is imported from New York-based Lamonica’s Pizza Dough Co. The array of 10-inch pies ranges from basics like pepperoni and Margherita to more exotic combos such as wild mushroom and baked brie ($13), which also includes onions, peppers, parmesan and pesto over a garlic cream sauce.
While the plentiful toppings swamped the middle of the thin crust – you’ll definitely need your fork – it showed its true colors around the edges, crisp on the bottom but airy and chewy on top. My wife, whose post-pizza plate is typically littered with crusty remains, left no bits behind.
The crust really shines in the cheesy bread sticks appetizer ($4). Contrary to what the name might suggest, it’s actually a circle of pizza dough topped with roasted garlic, olive oil and mozzarella and cut into strips, with marinara on the side – essentially a small cheese pizza at a big bargain price.
Two other appetizers, fried calamari and eggplant parmesan (each $7), were less successful. The squid was nicely breaded, but overcooked and rubbery. The cheese-stuffed eggplant, while tender and not at all bitter, was a bit dry, in need of more marinara.
Those minor disappointments were long forgotten by dessert time. Our three-ring roundup included blueberry cobbler, fresh and fruity with a generous scoop of firm vanilla ice cream; Kahlua crème brûlée, softly creamy under its crunchy caramel; and a dense Chocolate Confusion Cake with white chocolate mousse filling.
All were richly satisfying, but not too sweet – the sort of final act that sends you home happy, awaiting your next visit to the big top.