Gino's offers homey ambiance and delicious food.
Thursday, June 5, 2003
It was an absolutely gorgeous late afternoon in Salinas when I went to Gino''s for dinner. The rich, dark fields across the highway seemed to stretch out forever, ending in a mirage of black glass just before defying gravity and creeping up over the hills. It was the kind of warm day that makes you want to peel back the sunroof and tilt your head up just a smidge to catch the sting of the sun''s rays against your skin. And so I did. That it all culminated in dinner and a bottle of wine at one of the city''s finest restaurants was admittedly no accident--it was the day''s master plan.
Covered walkways and a rainbow of flowerbeds weave their way to the front door of what looks more like a family home than a restaurant. That plays a big role in Gino''s allure. This particular Friday, there wasn''t the usual crowd spilling out into the manicured gardens and enclosed patio. I chalked it up to the sun still beaming and it being far too beautiful outdoors to call it quits on the day just yet.
I''d called ahead for reservations and requested a table in the fireplace room, my favorite in the handful of small dining areas in the grandmotherly little house. I''d been given no guarantees aside from the usual "We''ll do our best," so I was pleasantly surprised when the hostess led us there. But the table was in the direct path of what was still quite an inviting sun, and I wasn''t crazy about squinting through dinner. I asked to be moved, and the hostess graciously agreed.
Our water glasses had just arrived when she came back, apologizing profusely, to explain that someone had already reserved that table and could we please move back to our first table. I immediately recalled the "We''ll do our best" I got when I had tried to make a specific reservation, and was slightly irritated that another party had managed to do so. But I got over it quickly, and we moved on.
The dining room feels a lot like home. Considering Gino''s has been a fixture in Salinas for close to 30 years, that''s not surprising. Finishing touches like crown molding and a lovely fireplace hearth with a fresco center stage of a gilded frame help to make the place feel inviting. The artwork is mostly mainstream, with plenty of prints of Venice scattered about the rooms, and a couple of outtake replicas from the Sistine Chapel.
The wine list is nothing short of impressive, one of the most expansive you''ll find anywhere in town. It dances across Italy and saunters about California, making stops at some personal favorites--Opus, Caymus, and Silver Oaks--and most local wineries. That particular night, we chose a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio ($32).
Gino''s dinner menu can best be described as Southern Italian, with a few notable strays that lend a California flare. That night, I abandoned the regular menu and chose one of the chef''s specials, a crab-filled pasta pazzo with a cup of artichoke bisque ($18.95). My friend chose the cannelloni and mixed green salad ($10.95).
The fireplace room can get a little stuffy on warm evenings, so the trickle of perfectly chilled white wine was a welcome beginning and a perfect match to the basket of warm bread. Our table service was a flawless dance. Most everything was tended to as a matter of course: refilled glasses, swept away dishes, fresh silverware.
My artichoke bisque was a seamless blend of leaves and hearts suspended in a rich tomato cream. It used to be my favorite of any soup anywhere, right up until Gino''s introduced a butternut squash soup, which wasn''t on the menu that night. I forced myself to stop halfway through the cup to save room for my entree.
We had plenty of time to enjoy our wine and indulge in good conversation while the chef perfected our pasta. The labyrinth of crab-stuffed pasta that appeared in front of me was served atop a featherbed of spinach and surrounded by a buttery shrimp sauce. It was deceiving at first, looking a bit scant on the plate, and I wished I''d kept the hard-to-give-back bisque. But the wanting didn''t last long. The heavy sauce and swollen pasta were satisfying and filling, and I wasn''t able to get through half of it before it was time to call it quits.
The cannelloni was simply beautiful in its presentation. The three pasta crepes were stuffed with meat and spinach and encircled by a rather profound Alfredo sauce. Just one would have been plenty, two an indulgence, all three unthinkable.
While the dessert menu was tempting, we''d indulged quite enough and opted to pass.
One of the most appealing aspects of Gino''s is the leisurely pace. I''ve never felt rushed there. Spending an hour or two for dinner at the restaurant is not uncommon. That night, it was closer to two. And as we left, relaxed and content, I couldn''t help but think: If this is as good as it could ever be, a perfect meal and great wine on a beautiful night in a charming small town, surrounded by people who matter, it will have been enough.
54 Monterey Rd., Salinas, 422-1814
Open M-F 11am-9pm, Sat 5-10pm