Who says you can’t go home again? For the Gennaro family, a return to West Ashley was as easy as spaghetti and meatballs.
Gennaro’s Little Italy
Cuisine: Italian-AmericanCategory: Neighborhood FavoriteLocation: 1280 Sam Rittenberg Blvd.Phone: 225-7923Hours: 4-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed SundayFood: 3Atmosphere: 3Service: 3Price: $-$$$$Costs: Appetizers $4.50-$8.95, salads $2.50-$9.95, entrees $16.95-$26.95, specialties $13.95-$18.50, sides $4-$5, daily specials, half orders.Vegetarian Options: YesBar: Full-service bar; happy hour 4-7 p.m.Decibel Level: ModerateWheelchair Access: YesOther: Outdoor patio, screened-in dining room, www.gennarositalian.com.
This summer the gregarious family that operates Gennaro’s Italian Ristorante in North Charleston opened a second location in the spot once home to Senor Taco.
With a look cribbed from a Little Italy playbook, up went the black-and-white photos of family and friends, on the walls a mural from scenic Italia and onto the menu the canon of Italian-American classics: meatballs ($5), gravy, antipasto ($9.95), lasagna ($15.95), fettuccini Alfredo ($16.95), the “parms” and piccatas ($16.95-$18.95).
They have done their grandparents, Carmino and Lucia Gennaro, who immigrated to Ellis Island from Abruzzi in the 1800s, proud. And they have continued the legacy of New York City’s Mulberry, Mott and Broome streets and today’s Arthur Avenue by bringing the red sauce nation to South Carolina.
This is a family-run operation and as they say, “There is always a Gennaro in the kitchen.”
Michael Gennaro Jr. is the owner-operator and executive chef of Little Italy. But do not be surprised to see Michael Senior, Linda, Jimmy or Robert making the gravy or glad-handing the guests.
Unlike their North Charleston location, there is no jazz on Thursdays and no pizza on the menu. In fact, the menu has been streamlined and I like the dishes coming out of the kitchen.
This is old-school stuff: no crudo, capretto or cheeks. These are the recipes of cooks who made gravy slow-simmered for hours, who called pasta “macaroni” and served Sunday sauce with meatballs, braciole and sausage.
The restaurant opened this summer and they quickly set about creating the look and feel of a classic Italian mom-and-pop operation. A small bar has a high top and booth for those who need a side of sports with their dinner; two dining areas with mostly booths, a great horseshoe-shaped booth we called the “godfather’s table,” as it could seat a dozen, and a screened-in dining area enjoyed by families with young children.
Many of the tables had signs saying “reserved” on them: a task in today’s modern restaurant managed by OpenTable or SeatMe. Somehow, though, those signs looked right at home in Gennaro’s.
When it came to ordering, we hitched our appetites to the basics. Clams oreganato ($8.95) were the bready, clammy, oregano-enriched quahogs of taste memory. Spritz them with a bit of lemon and you enter the Sinatra-zone.
The soup ($4.50), an earthy escarole and beans minestre, was well-seasoned with bits of ground sausage and red pepper flakes. Zuppas (broth-based) of clams and mussels ($8.95), fried calamari ($8.50) and stuffed mushrooms ($7.95) underscore the heritage of this menu.
Salads are dressed with house-made dressings, the bread is baked on the premises, and soups and sauces simmer in the kitchen of Gennaro’s Little Italy.
The kitchen dispatched a toasted bread round topped with flavorful mozzarella, roasted tomatoes and a balsamic reduction on a Romaine leaf: a panzanella salad in two bites! A well-constructed crostini.
The homemade bread is crusty and warm and the mild olive oil wears its seasonings well.
Six pasta dishes are available as half orders and prodigious portions assured us we made the right call ordering the smaller size, and even had lunch leftovers.
Orecchiette ($18.50, $11.75) were topped with shrimp, sausage bits and fresh spinach in garlic and olive oil napped with a bit of Alfredo sauce. Densely textured and imbued with the heat of the rendered sausage, this dish married rich and salty to a robust finish.
The Eggplant a la Michael is a keeper and can be ordered as an entree ($16.95) or side ($5). The eggplant is peeled, thinly sliced and pleasantly enriched with meatballs, sausage, tomato and mozzarella.
Shrimp Diablo parmigiana ($18.50) failed to deliver a spicy “zuppa” and the shrimp were tucked in with a blanket of cheese that played against their tender sweetness. This is a dish where less would be more and Parmesan better served than mozzarella.
Tenderloin steaks ($25.95, $26.95) replace the rib-eyes of the North Charleston location; chicken and veal are equally balanced on the menu.
Kudos to them for an Italian dessert menu ($5.95): cannoli, tiramisu, cheesecake and cassata cake. The latter marries sponge cake, a creamy filling similar to what you find in a cannoli and an almond-flavored icing. Try it with espresso for the flavors of sweet Sicily.
The servers are well-trained and informed and very proud of the Gennaro legacy. Prices are gentle, the space well-groomed.
The Gennaro name is derived from the Roman god Janus, the gatekeeper who looks both forward and back. Gennaro’s Little Italy honors that heritage both at the table and building their brand in the Lowcountry, straddling the past and the future with respect.