There is a saying . . . “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That would apply to pretty much anything in life, except the restaurant business. I’ve known a number of restaurants that have stuck with the same menu, year after year, only to see their clientele fade away, month by month until their once busy doors are locked forever.
That’s why I’m always happy to support local restaurants with seasonal menus. You know you’re getting the freshest produce because the menu offers only what is in season, and the best fish, for the same reason. Trust me, there is a real difference between a luscious red, locally grown tomato, and one that was shipped in from out of state.
It is with this “fresh is best” concept that Giorgio’s on Hillview completely revamped their menu, ditching the Italian concept, (how many Italian restaurants are in SRQ?) to a creative menu featuring fresh food done the right way.
With this change came a revamp of the interior decor and a new Head Chef, Rebekah Peranio, who refers to the menu style as Naturally Gourmet. Cool! I can get behind that. I am also all for Giorgio’s focus on sustainability and responsibility. “It’s not just a focus on ingredients. We no longer use single-use plastic or Styrofoam. We don’t offer straws, and even our wine is on tap, reducing the waste of 23 glass bottles ending up in landfills for every cask of wine tapped.”
Owners Giorgio Guastella and Elena Luca closed for couple weeks in June, refreshing the interior and adding outdoor planters filled with colorful plants and flowers, and brought on Michael Garey as Director of Operations (and our convivial host for the evening.) At a recent evening spent with Taste Dining & Travel Magazine publisher Neal Finelli, and a table full of concierges, we got to meet Chef Rebekah for their first night of service with the new menu.
Diving right in, we sampled a gorgeous Vine Ripe Cherry Tomato appetizer featuring oven roasted blistered tomatoes, garlic and fresh savory Ricotta hosted on a basil oil sauce with smoked sea salt. Freshly baked crostini was provided for us to drag ever so slowly through that Ricotta, top with a warm tomato and savor the flavors of garlic and basil.
Equally delicious was the Baked Goat Cheese appetizer, which featured an herbed house breaded crumb crust on a wheel of goat cheese. Served with Catelvetrano olive tapenade, this dish has a definite European flair to it, maybe more southern French than Italian, but the flair is there.
A Chilled Vegan Vichyssoise was next, served in a smaller sized portion than guests would normally be served, but Chef Rebekah really wanted us to try it. Made with vegetable stock, creamed leek, and potato, this velvety, earthy soup has a hint of white wine and olive oil, with the creaminess coming from puréed cauliflower instead of dairy. You don’t have to be vegan to thoroughly enjoy Giorgio’s vichyssoise.
After sharing the appetizers, we moved on to sharing three entrées, each one easily cuts into several nice sized portions, enabling us to try a little of the land, the sea, and the sky. . . aka a pork entrée, a salmon entrée, and a chicken entrée.
A Slow Braised Pork Sugo featured pork shoulder cooked in its own juices with a “can’t stop eating this” cauliflower gratin and seasonal greens . . . in this case kale. The pork was braised until it falls apart and mixed with a red wine and tomato sauce that also paired well with the cauliflower. While it isn’t the “prettiest” dish on the menu, it certainly is hearty and deeply flavorful.
Cedar Baked Salmon is always a favorite, and Giorgio’s version doesn’t disappoint. Glazed with a citrus whole grain mustard, the salmon was seasoned ideally for my taste. Caressed in a bed of shaved fennel, arugula, and quinoa, this dish was bejeweled with a side of deep ruby red roasted beets. I’m not sure if I’ve paired salmon with beets before, but I certainly will in the future. It was just lovely and satisfying.
My favorite entrée of the night was the Free Range Herb Roast Chicken. Served with oven roasted fingerling potatoes, garlic aioli and seasoned vegetables, this roasted chicken was simple in its perfection. “How did Chef Rebekah get that chicken so moist,” was asked by a number of us at the table. The answer? She twice baked it. Cooked first over a grate that catches all the juices and fat dripping from the chicken, Chef then marinates the skin in those juices, which she seasons with thyme, oregano, garlic, and cumin. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
I failed to mention the fabulous cocktails we sampled at Giorgio’s. The first was a Lifsins Elixir, essentially a cucumber-infused Hendrick’s Gin (infused in-house for 4 days) with elderflower and fresh lime. The resulting taste was a light, summery cocktail with a note of grapefruit. The cucumber sits front and center, and the gin hides patiently in the background – ready to bite if you order too many. This is a wonderful cocktail.
Doing a rift on a Manhattan, Chef Rebekkah and our friendly server Mark created the He Said, She Said. More robust than our first cocktail, the He Said, She Said is bound to become a favorite to anyone who likes rye with a nice finish. Bulleit Rye, Carpano Antica are combined with house-made strawberry shrub (strawberries that are macerated in balsamic and sugar for several days) and topped with chocolate bitters. Inside each glass was a delightful cherry. Those of us who went ahead and ate ours were quick to make sure our dining partners all did the same. To me, it tasted like a boozy chocolate covered cherry, even though chocolate was nowhere to be seen. Yum!
Giorgio’s wine by the glass was also enjoyable, each of us having a half glass of each cocktail so we could enjoy the wine as well. I had to leave the table and see where the wine was poured . . . sure enough, it’s right there next to the beer taps. Pretty ingenious.
For dessert, we each enjoyed an awesome Cold Brew Float featuring Out and About Cold Brewed Coffee with ice cream. What a wonderful dessert beverage. So flavorful and rich, but may I warn you. . . mine was not decaf so if you are one of those people who can’t drink coffee after 5:00, I recommend you ask for the decaf version. That being said, the flavor was totally worth the several hours of missed sleep. . . just saying!
Our final dessert was Chef Rebekah’s Gluten Free Almond Sponge Cake. This savory cake is made with fresh basil, sweet cream, and fresh poached peaches, then dressed with basil chiffonade. The experience of the fresh basil in the sponge cake was beyond delicious. I absolutely loved dragging the sponge cake through the sweet cream and finishing off each bite with the tang of fresh peach. A little sweet, a little savory, a little indulgence like this never hurt anyone. I’d absolutely recommend this dessert, knowing fully well that it won’t be on the menu when peaches are no longer in season. RUN over and get one!!
At the end of the evening, Giorgio himself came by to introduce himself and ask what we thought of the changes at the restaurant. What could we say except “Good move!” Fresh is always best, especially when that fresh produce and proteins are coming from our local markets.
Me thinks that Giorgio’s on Hillview has this “Naturally Gourmet” dialed in pretty well! And congratulations to Chef Rebekah Peranio. In the world of accomplished chefs, not many of them are women. Way to represent!