The flowering pear trees blooming throughout the city are beautiful, but they’re causing misery to many people — including me. I was all set to review Sunday brunch at the Rittenhouse Hotel when I realized my taste buds were on an allergy hiatus.
Finding a substitute restaurant two days later was easy. While on our way home from Mama Palma’s, my husband Edward and I walked by Gusto, a restaurant/pizzeria on 20th Street. I looked inside and saw a warm brick wall lined with decorative empty wine bottles from around the world. The place was filled with students, couples and families. Finding a good family restaurant is rare these days. Finding a restaurant that serves really good pizza is even more difficult. My favorites have been Marra’s and Mama Palma’s.
We invited our friends Cliff and Gloria to accompany us. Gusto is a casual neighborhood spot and it’s BYOB. We toted along a bottle of Dolcetto d’Alba, which works well with pizza and robust Italian fare. The staff is young, accommodating and friendly.
We settled into a roomy table and Edward walked over to a large, freestanding contraption that turned out to be a corkscrew. One of our waitresses, who offered to open our wine for us, showed him how to open the bottle. She also brought us heavy paper plates, wineglasses and silverware. Sounds a bit quirky — real wineglasses and knives and forks, but paper plates. Go figure. We didn’t mind at all.
Dinner began with two orders of antipasto ($6.75 each), which arrived in large bowls and could easily serve two to three per order. Each ingredient was immaculately fresh. Included were bite-sized bits of Romaine lettuce, some slightly under-ripe tomatoes, thin rings of sweet red onion, sliced cucumber, a few Gaeta olives, strips of roasted red pepper and about five pinwheels fashioned from imported prosciutto, Genoa salami and mortadella. Some bits of sharp provolone cheese were scattered on top of the salad. Our waitress brought cruets of extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar to the table so we could dress our portions ourselves. This is a good idea, as so many places overdress antipasti and salads.
None of us had trouble finishing the antipasto; it was so tasty. With this course we nibbled on fresh Italian bread and butter.
A variety of sandwiches are on offer at Gusto, including roast beef, roast pork, chicken cutlet, veal cutlet and eggplant Parmesan, but I asked our waitress if we could have sandwich ingredients made into a platter. "Of course," she said. The majority of these sandwiches come with a choice of spinach or broccoli rabe. She brought us a warm loaf of seeded Italian bread with our platters.
My eggplant Parmesan ($5.50) was a delicious surprise. I selected broccoli rabe and thought it was going to be placed on the side. It was built like a Napoleon. First of all, the broccoli rabe had no bitter taste at all. It was perfectly cooked, chopped and placed between the layers of tasty slices of eggplant — which had been dipped in seasoned bread crumbs and quickly saut�ed — and slices of sharp provolone. The eggplant was topped with fresh marinara sauce before it was baked in the oven. The good-sized portion arrived piping hot. All it required was a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Edward wanted a platter of veal cutlet with broccoli rabe ($5.70), and he was a bit disappointed because the veal was not breaded. Instead, the thin, tender slice had been quickly pan-seared in olive oil along with some mushrooms.
Cliff said he wanted to try a different type of hoagie before moving on to the pizza. Gusto’s veggie hoagie ($5.35) was filled with saut�ed spinach, roasted peppers, slices of grilled portabello mushrooms and grilled zucchini topped off with the proper mix of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It arrived on seeded Italian bread and was simply tasty.
Now the pizza — one of the real reasons I wanted to try Gusto. I was not disappointed.
First, it must be said: I loathe pre-made commercial pizza dough — the kind that, when formed and pressed into a pan, topped with greasy, runny sauce and gummy cheese and baked in the oven, comes out tasting like cardboard. The ingredients must be top-notch. Some pizza joints (we all know who the offenders are) use soggy canned mushrooms, canned black olives that taste like vulcanized rubber, or frozen chopped spinach in their pies.
Gusto offers two sizes of pizza, small and large. The small is a bit larger than most individual pizzas served in more upscale Center City restaurants. After some debate, we decided on a white pizza with sliced tomatoes, garlic and spinach ($6.75 and $11.50). It won smiles all around. The pizza crust was crisp and thin. The bottom was not a bit soggy or greasy. The cheese melted beautifully on top of the pie, which contained mounds of fresh steamed spinach placed around small slices under ripe tomatoes. It was so hot, we had to wait a bit before digging in.
As we finished our pizza, we noticed a woman enjoying pizza with her small son and daughter, who was in a stroller, at one of the outside tables. There was another family enjoying dinner as well. With the cost of restaurant dining ever on the rise, Gusto is a delightful find.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Gusto.
240 S. 20th St.
Aisle too small for a wheelchair