You’ve got your Manhattan Italian restaurants — opulent and palatial establishments, such as Del Posto and its cruise liner-turned-dining room, or Lincoln Ristorante, a glass jewel box of a restaurant at the heart of Lincoln Center. And you’ve got your Brooklyn Italian restaurants — quaint, cozy neighborhood joints, such as Lucali, with its candlelit farmhouse tables and wine bottle-rolled pizza dough, or Frankies Spuntino, whose back garden is as enchanted as warm summer evenings in the city.
You can easily guess what kind of Italian restaurant Gersi is from the moment you walk in. While keeping their original location in Brooklyn, owners Gersi Memaga and Susannah Proctor opened their second location in Richmond’s Fan District last fall, slipping into the former Swan Dive space, rather unceremoniously, as if they’d been a part of the neighborhood all along.
Gersi, despite being new to our food scene, has a timelessness about it. It evokes an old love poem, one that’s been romancing Richmond diners for generations. There’s a yellowish glow to the restaurant, much like the sheets of parchment on which its menus are printed. Menu items are etched in faded cursive letters you’ll sometimes have to squint at to make out.
An eclectic assortment of antique lights — sconces in the shape of giant grape clusters, anyone? — faintly illuminates the room. Perched high above the bar are rows of dusty wine bottles and a framed portrait of da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” Amorous sounds of instrumental jazz float through the room, entwined with the conversational hum coming from each table.
The food can leave you feeling just as romantic. After settling on a bottle of Super Tuscan, or whatever it is you and your companions are drinking, some crusty bread will show up at your table, gratis, with an aphrodisiac of cannellini beans, red pepper flakes, parsley, olive oil and garlic — lots and lots of garlic. So much garlic, in fact, that the concoction reeks of it, burning your nostrils while imparting a divinely bracing bitterness to the tender white beans.
You’ll probably want to savor your first glass of wine over some antipasti or bruschetta. It won’t look like much, but the roasted garlic bruschetta ($3.50) — a slab of toasted bread shellacked with melted Parmesan and roasted garlic — is a definite stunner. Garlic cloves, roasted until their flavors have mellowed, are so creamy and nutty and sweet they seamlessly merge with the cheese to form a single molten sheath over the bread.
Don’t sleep on the broccoli rabe ($13.95), either — though, frankly, it won’t let you. This dish is not for the faint of tongue. Iridescent filets of pickled white anchovies arouse the drowsy stalks of broccoli rabe like a white wine vinaigrette, with their incisive — and, yes, fishy — flavors giving a shock to your taste buds.
For that second glass of wine, you might be tempted to focus exclusively on the restaurant’s homemade pastas. As Stanley Tucci’s character famously says in the film “Big Night”: “Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone.” This may have been true at the fictitious Italian restaurant from that movie. At Gersi, the pastas want company. For now at least, they’re not quite impressive enough to stand on their own. Fortunately, half orders of pasta are allowed, freeing up room on your table for some protein-focused secondi dishes.
A milky divot of ricotta di pecora, placed over long, bendy reeds of strozzapreti pasta ($14.95) is an uplifting addition to the dish, smoothing out the sharper edges of the marinara. Unfortunately, there’s so much marinara that the contents of this dish are drowning in it. I wasn’t sure whether to eat it or drink it.
Ripened tomatoes, pleasingly acidic, cut through the meaty ragu in the bolognese ($16.95) like sunlight, keeping it bright and vivid. But the tagliatelle isn’t strong enough for the sauce. Just the slightest bit of heft causes the gossamer ribbons of pasta, which are as thin and delicate as wonton skins, to tear apart.
More is also needed to make the spaghetti al limone ($10.95) taste less like pasta in a bowl of lemon-scented water — or, as was the case when I ordered it, lukewarm lemon-scented water — and more like an elevated pasta dish.
As a companion to the pasta, consider calling upon the grilled polenta ($16.95). The gently charred tile of polenta is crumbly and sweet like griddled cornbread, with all the smokiness of a wood-burning fire. Freely draped over top is a giant leaf pile of sliced prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, and pickled fennel. The dish, sluiced with olive oil and aged balsamic, hits every square inch of your palate, with a little salty, tangy, fruity, smoky and umami.
You may want to cozy up to some roasted chicken ($18.95) as well. A moat of dark jus, the color of molasses, surrounds the chicken. The chicken, topped with a stewed tomato, is so tender to the bone it’s practically nostalgic. Every now and then, a bite taken will ring like a tiny bell with licorishy notes of fennel seeds.
While having just opened, Gersi somehow feels new but not unfamiliar. The same goes for the food, which, despite its occasional issues, imparts a recognizable sense of comfort. Chances are you’ll grow so fond of this new Brooklyn-born Italian restaurant in the Fan that, by the time you walk out that door, you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to it like an old friend.
Justin Lo writes freelance reviews for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram @justinsjlo.