Dining for $25 or less: Cafe Gia

Special to the Sun

Before owner Gia Blattermann-Fugate opened her eponymous Little Italy restaurant two years ago, she brought in artist Yuri Victorov, who gave the space its signature cheery wall colors and bright murals.

Outside the restaurant, Victorov re-created the Sicilian wedding of Gia's grandparents. He also painted each door a different color, to create the impression that the small building was actually a cluster of different bistros and restaurants.

Inside, he painted vintage food and drink posters and added bright purples and oranges as not-so-neutral background shades. The goal, said Blattermann-Fugate, was to give diners the feeling that they were in a neighborhood bistro in a small Italian town. And, what do you know? It works. On late-spring nights, when the doors are flung open to catch the warm breezes and city sounds, Cafe Gia feels utterly casual yet sophisticated, urban yet homespun.

It only helps that Blattermann-Fugate herself is our waitress, and her impossibly tiny and chic mother is working the room as hostess, chatting with customers as they peruse the menus.

The menu changes occasionally but remains a simple compilation of well-made southern Italian classics like shrimp fra diavolo and chicken piccata, reinforcing the sense that this is a restaurant that is comfortable in its well-worn niche. Cafe Gia isn't inventing something new here, but it brings its "A game" to the standard neighborhood Italian restaurant.

The appetizer choices are exactly right - a few salads and soups, bruschetta and fried calamari. Nothing earth-shattering, but the calamari ($11.95) is tender on the inside with gently crisp exteriors, served with a lively cocktail sauce. The bruschetta ($7.95) is slightly more interesting, with black olives, capers, chopped tomato and celery atop fat slices of Italian bread. The topping is very nice, but our bread had been soaked in olive oil, making it too greasy. It was the only misfire in an evening of excellent food.

Though prices on the menu don't stray much above $20, the specials offered each night can be considerably more. Lamb chops ($28.95) were probably worth the price because the portion was so generous and the meat buttery-soft and so deliciously infused with rosemary and other spices. We also liked the simple accompaniments of crisp potato chunks and salty green beans.

Seafood and pasta are the go-together backbones of many Cafe Gia dishes, including shrimp fra diavolo ($16.95), which packed just the right amount of heat and showcased perfectly cooked linguine; and excellent frutti di mare (a special, for $26.95) with generous amounts of sweet, fresh salmon, shrimp and other seafood.

I particularly liked the chicken piccata ($15.95), with its tart lemon-wine-caper sauce over pieces of fork-tender chicken breast. Like the lamb chops, the chicken was served with green beans and potatoes - a simple and delicious meal.

Cafe Gia makes its own cannolis and tiramisu, and I recommend both. The cannoli is light and crisp, with a rich lemony filling, and the tiramisu is creamy and not too sweet. The restaurant does not have a liquor license, but patrons are encouraged to bring their own wine or beer. Gia herself will probably open the bottle for you.

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