If you’ve been around the Louisville dining scene long enough to remember back when the old landmark Casa Grisanti was still a pizzeria, you know that long before there was trendy “Northern Italian” we had spaghetti with meatballs and plenty of spicy red tomato sauce. Extra credit for red-checked tablecloths, plastic grapevines and wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles recycled as candle holders.
To get technical about it, “Northern Italian” isn’t really authentic Italian so much as a somewhat idealized American rendition of popular dishes from all over Italy. The genre gained traction during the 1970s as a lighter, more upscale reaction to the hearty tomato-sauce Italian that had gone before.
In fact, the red-sauce genre is arguably more honest, drawing its inspiration from the heritage of Southern Italy — Calabria and Sicily — filtered through New York, New Jersey and the Northeast by immigrants in the Ellis Island era.
Because food snobs tend to diss the joys of lasagna and eggplant parmigian and, well, spaghetti and meatballs with tomato “gravy,” it’s fairly easy to find a purportedly “Tuscan” repast in Louisville, but great immigrant Italian-American restaurants have become thin on the ground.
Of course, most of the high-end “Northern Italian” spots, knowing which side their pasta is sauced on, still include spaghetti and meatballs and other old family favorites somewhere on the menu.
But a couple of newer spots are earning particularly glowing reputations among those of us who still have a deep affection for Italian immigrant family fare in a family-style setting.
Melillo’s, for instance, has earned almost fanatical loyalty among its regular customers since moving into the quaint Piazza Felice on East Market in 2004. And a newcomer, Le Gallo Rosso, a tiny eatery that opened last year in the “Shoppes on the Alley” on Bardstown Road, is also building a small but growing “cult” following.
They’re both small and cozy, maybe a dozen tables each. Melillo’s resembles a family Italian restaurant in New Jersey with its wall full of old family photos; while Le Gallo Rosso has more of a tea room mood, with a few red-checked tablecloths and stucco-look walls to impart a gentle Italian accent.
At Melillo’s, you’re made to feel like a welcome “regular” in an Italian family eatery: “Ciao! Mangia! Mangia e statti zitto!” Gallo Rosso speaks Italian with a Southern American accent that’s not diminished by the presence of bourbon-basted baby back ribs alongside the antipasti: “Y’all set yourselves right down … and mangia.”
We’ve dropped in on both places a couple of times lately, checking out Le Gallo Rosso for lunch and dinner, Melillo’s for lunch and its recently instituted Saturday brunch with its memorable Nonna’s Eggs Benedict and the self-confidently monikered “best egg sandwich you ever ate.”
At Le Gallo Rosso, customers are welcome to bring their own wine, and there’s no “corkage” fee. Melillo’s short wine list includes several selections from Felice Winery, located in the same complex.
Le Gallo Rosso keeps its menu quite short, which seems wise: When you’ve got a small restaurant with a tiny kitchen, it’s smart to focus on a good, short selection of dishes and do them well.
Our friendly server saved us a few bucks by offering to plate half-portions of two salads to replace the small side salad that usually accompanies dinner. Both were excellent, and generously portioned despite their half-size. A delicious, well-made Caesar ($6.75 for a full salad) consisted of crisp romaine, shredded Parmigiano, crunchy garlic croutons and just the right amount of creamy dressing (with a nice anchovy or Worcestershire scent) and crispy croutons. The “Mediterranean” salad ($8 for a full order) was just as appetizing, romaine with lot of tasty toppings: roasted red peppers, black olives, artichoke hearts, pepperoncini peppers and crumbled feta cheese, with your choice of dressing in a crock on the side. (The balsamic vinaigrette was thick, sweet-tangy and good.)
Hot, fresh Italian bread comes in thick slices, with a dish of green, fruity olive oil and cracked black pepper for dipping.
Main courses are huge. A portion of lasagne ($10 for lunch, $13.95 for dinner) the size of a brick contained hearty layers of pasta, ground pork and veal, well-fashioned tomato sauce and cheeses. We’ve had the gorgonzola fettuccine with mushrooms twice ($10 for lunch, $13.95 for dinner) and enjoyed it both times: Perfect al dente pasta with a simple but very rich alfredo-style sauce of cream and cheese with a haunting, delicate blue-cheese scent plus an earthy whiff of truffle oil — and tender shiitake mushroom caps, an offbeat but flavorful alternative for an Italian pasta dish.
I couldn’t pass by an Italian-American standard, a big bowl of al dente spaghetti with stuffed meatballs ($11.95). It’s loaded with a deep, earthy, long-simmered and caramelized tomato sauce with a splash of red wine, spicy and sweet with a hint of balsamic, accompanied by a pair of meatballs literally the size of tennis balls, beefy but feather-light, each formed around a molten boconcini ball of mozzarella in the middle. This is true comfort food for me. I ate and ate, and still ended up taking home enough pasta for two more lunches.
The server’s enthusiastic recommendation made it hard to pass on tiramisu for dessert. Frankly, he was so over-the-top about it being the best in town, I figured he had to be faking us out. Wrong! It was incredible, rich yet so light that it wanted to float gently up to the ceiling. Coffee was clean and strong.
With our own wine, the bill for a massive dinner big enough to feed four came to a thrifty $36, plus a $10 tip.
Le Gallo Rosso
1325 Bardstown Road
Rating: 88 points
Melillo’s is famous for gigantic portions, too, proclaiming, “The only bad thing about eating at Melillo’s is that in three days you’re hungry again.”
Indeed, the dishes are so large that it’s all but impossible to finish one at a sitting, but they’re so good that it’s hard to stop. The menu — call it “New Jersey Italian” — features Italian-heritage dishes from spaghetti and meatballs and parmigiana to a broad selection of Italian deli sandwiches.
Spaghettini with marinara sauce ($7) and a meatball ($3) was great. A gigantic bowl contained what must have been a full pound of thin spaghetti, perfectly al dente. The marinara sauce was very thick and a bright, fresh-tomato red. In contrast with the traditional simmer-all-day approach, it’s relatively light and fresh, a textured, sweet-tangy sauce that retains the good fruity flavor of meaty plum tomatoes. The meatball was almost as big as a baseball but tasted much better, beefy and garlicky and dense.
Eggplant Parmigiana Melillo ($8) was excellent, too. Three thick eggplant rounds were lightly breaded and fried, crisp on the outside and creamy and steaming within, topped with melted Parmigiana, loaded with the same fresh marinara sauce and served on top of a bowl of spaghettini, enough to put an Atkins dieter into remission. I added a densely textured, fennel-redolent mild Italian sausage ($3) on the side.
Side salads ($3) were fine, crisp romaine with grape tomatoes, chunks of cucumber and shredded cheese, with a tart balsamic dressing. A shared cannoli for dessert was as good as I ever ate. Another Melillo’s favorite, zeppole (also available for brunch), is addictive, feather-light fried sweet dough, the Italian equivalent of a French Quarter beignet.
With iced tea, lunch for two was $37.10, plus a $10 tip, and just as we had done at Le Gallo Rosso, we came home staggering under the weight of two big boxes full of leftovers.
829B E. Market St.
Rating: 89 points
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