The day after my dinner at Gemma, I got an email my friend Heather, who’d joined some girlfriends and me the night before for an Italian feast. Her email was short and sweet, and ended with a request: “Dinner was great. Hopefully we'll do it again. But can we bring our waiter???” I laughed, and couldn’t agree more.
The waiter she was referring to was a gent called Ivo—a lean, swanky, ivory-faced chap with a straight mane of shoulder length blond hair, and clear blue eyes who has a tendency to speak (and swish his hips) like Sasha Baron Cohen’s Ali-G show fashion circuit character, Bruno. When Ivo arrived to offer us menus and a choice of water (Gemma filters New York tap, which is what we went for) his sentences were punctuated with a three part move—a generous hip swish, a coy head tilt, and a smile—and did he bat his eyelashes? Entirely possible. No matter. He had a sweet but mischievous smile and from the moment we met Ivo, we loved him.
To be sure, the restaurant that employs Ivo isn’t so bad either. Gemma, which loosely translates to little jewel in Italian, is an impossibly hip Eric Goode and Sean Macpherson creation that offers moderately priced straight up Italian fare in the manner of their other hotel restaurant, La Bottega. (The chef, Chris D’Amico, was formerly the chef at La Bottega.) It’s a formula that’s very much crowd-pleasing in its approach, but what makes it more special than La Bottega is the setting, which was designed by Taavo Somer (known for his work at Freeman’s), who’s turned the place into a weathered, intensely rustic trattoria with intricately carved wood-beamed ceilings, waxy candelabras, gothic wrought iron chandeliers, and mix and match farmhouse tables and chairs that face an open kitchen with a wood-fired pizza oven.
At the restaurant’s long bar, proper cocktails (Negroni, Aperol Sprizz, Margarita, Manhattan) are mixed with care from freshly squeezed juices. And thanks to food and beverage director James Stuart, general manager Eric Rosenfeld, and the charming Maitre d’ Giovanni Bertagnolli, the staff is warm, friendly, and welcoming. What a concept! (Take note Wakiya. It’s okay to be nice.)
We’d already had a cocktail at the hotel bar before dinner (a ritual I recommend) so by the time we met Ivo, we were already, shall we say socially lubricated, and deep into a rather intimate conversation (read: girls talking about boys, well, really sex.) As you must know, women are much worse than men in this regard. In my estimation (which could be off because what do I really know about what men discuss behind closed doors) we talk about sex as much as they talk about sports. Not sure what that says about us, but, anyway, Ivo smiled as he dropped off a basket of freshly baked chewy pizza bread, overhearing one of my friends dishing about a new guy and then took our drink order (bottle of Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige, $30) with the hip swish combo move. I really just wanted to invite him to sit down and hang out with us. He’s so one of the girls. But alas, he was working.
When he returned with our wine (a very refreshing white for a sticky summer night), he’d brought us a few dishes of crudo ($7-9), served set over terra cotta bowls of ice: tuna with citrus (sheer, delicate, nicely balanced flavors), silvery sheets of sea bream with pine nuts and crispy sage (my favorite), and thin coins of scallop dabbed with minced truffles (a bit too heavy really for the scallop). The salads he delivered were both terrific: a generous serving of shaved raw artichokes tossed with shredded radicchio in a bright citrus and white truffle vinaigrette ($11), and a bed of arugula that was introduced to newfound plate-mates: juicy chunks of watermelon and toasted pine nuts ($10).
The next courses arrived as we were into a conversation about getting older, and the prospect of plastic surgery (Botox, tucks, lifts, collagen, etc.), and then, more specifically, breast implants, as one of my friends was (jokingly) considering them. “I realize now why women should not get breast implants,” another friend offered. “I know someone who got them (she was flat as a board) and then had children, and she’s now a 34F.” 34F!?! Oh, dear. Ivo arrived just then, overhearing this last comment, shaking his head as if to say, “That’s not good at all, ladies. Keep ‘em tight and perky!”
On this trip over to our table, he’d brought over our entrees, a smorgasbord of Italian eats; I wanted to get a sense of the kitchen’s strengths and weaknesses and so we ordered a little of everything. Among the strengths would be the pizzas, bubbly cheese and sweet pulpy tomatoes on thin but ample crusts, topped with everything from mushroom ($14), to proscuitto and arugula ($15), and spicy sausage and onion ($14). We went for the four seasons—topped with basil, artichokes, proscuitto and mushrooms, and were quite pleased. I’d eat this pizza with a salad at the bar any night of the week.
The kitchen also turns out some surprisingly simple dishes from that wood oven. Whole branzino is filleted and roasted on a cedar plank and served with sautéed broccoli rabe. It doesn’t even need a squeeze of lemon—it’s just a naked, beautiful fish that’s mostly left alone, and rightly so. The roasted Amish chicken is also a startlingly bare preparation (it’s Amish after all) that manages to impress with its golden, almost crunchy skin and dense, creamy, moist flesh, over lemony sautéed spinach. Gnocchi Bolognese ($15) is not exactly summery, but it’s damn good, though I’d skip the rigatoni with proscuitto cotto, cream and peas ($16), which is fine if you’ve been fasting for days and need a week’s worth of calories in one dish, but it’s really a bit too heavy and almost clunky.
Dessert offers the important (and, quite frankly, required) chance to experience something called a “calzone di nutella ($10).” This dessert stromboli—a massive half-moon shaped pizza/pastry— is served on a wooden pizza plank, dusted with powered sugar and filled up with shameless amounts of oozing hot nutella and chocolate (and a little ricotta). Alison was beside herself and seemed to retreat into her own private world as she scooped up molten bites of this wonderland known as a calzone. Let’s just sat this is one dessert that should be eaten with a special friend in private (unless you’d like to be in a Frank Bruni article about inappropriate dining room behavior).
As we worked on our calzone, Ivo came back over to check in on us. His head was tilted, his hip was swished, and jutted out to the side. “How is everything lay-deeeez?” he asked, with a smile. “Ivo, this calzone is amazing,” we mumbled in between bites, with streaks of melted chocolate no doubt oiling our cheeks. “I know! Isn’t it fabulous?” he said, as he offered coffee and tea, and then turned (read: pirouetted) away. But as he sashayed over to his other tables, Debbie noticed something more than a hip swish. “Did he just curtsy?” Yes, indeed, he did. Love him.
Review By: Andrea Strong