The era of TV celebrity chefs probably raises as many unreasonable expectations as TV shows about house-buying. But there’s still something intriguing about entering a world created by a Food Network star, especially when that star is the personable Giada De Laurentiis.
Her first restaurant opened four years ago in a hotel on the Las Vegas strip; another followed in that gambling mecca this year. And now, nestled away from slot machines and poker tables at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, we have GDL Italian by Giada — not the most mellifluously named restaurant, perhaps, but a welcome addition to the scene.
Once past a brusque host (strange how such an important, first-impression job often goes to indifferent folks), we felt uplifted walking into the airy dining room with a red-and-white-accented decor that suggests a midcentury-modern-fueled fantasy. Photos of De Laurentiis dot the walls, of course, but not in a pushy, look-at-me way.
Our server may have been a little green — a superfluous place setting wasn’t cleared away; used plates and silverware remained throughout the meal — but made up for it in charm and pacing.
We mulled over dinner choices while sipping on high-octane cocktails (a bar that serves such a muscular martini and old-fashioned commands respect), nibbling on nicely chewy focaccia and extra crispy flatbread.
Our appetizers continued the good vibes.
An arugula salad, one of the items marked on the menu with a “G” for you-know-who (others get a “B” for “Baltimore specialty”), made a virtue of simplicity.
The very fresh greens popped on the plate with the help of shaved cheese, bits of pancetta and candied lemon, and a subtle balsamic dressing. (You might want to add fresh ground pepper, if only to see a staffer lug over a pepper mill the size of the Washington Monument.)
It’s de rigueur to work crab into just about any menu in Maryland, which GDL Italian does in stylish fashion. Jumbo lump crab is breadcrumb-coated and fried like a rice ball, accompanied by Old Bay-seasoned aioli.
Even more fun is a trio of meatballs. The orzo and chicken marsala ones offered character and charm. But the crunchy turkey meatball delivered particularly delectable texture, along with hearty flavor from ricotta and a burst of chili.
The pasta course we sampled revealed considerable finesse — a sensible, perfectly al dente portion of chitarra spaghetti in a light, lemony alfredo sauce with peas. This was Italian cooking worthy of a TV spotlight.
Not so the entrees we tried. Even allowing for the piquant flavor, the chicken piccata was a failure, the breasts too thick and tough (seems to me they should have been pounded thin first).
I was expecting more pizzazz from the one entree marked with a “G,” the Tuscan ribeye steak. Salmoriglio seasoning (lemon, oregano, garlic, etc.) provided interest, but the reasonably tender beef still tasted too ordinary for the $51 price.
There are four sides available. Since each costs $9, you might as well go for the $20 tasting combo that includes all of them.
We loved the lemony-cheesy smashed potatoes, but devoured the crispy Parmigiano polenta with pesto even faster. There was something to be said, too, for the creamed corn with kicky sausage. Charred broccoli rabe with cranberry walnut gremolata would have been better off with a lot less liquid smoke.
Desserts found the kitchen in fine form. The chocolate brownie affogato with coffee gelato tasted intense and indulgent. The zeppole — fried dough balls of divine lightness — generated an addictive, cinnamon-y pleasure that didn’t even need the chocolate hazelnut sauce on the side.
GDL Italian by Giada 3 stars
1525 Russell St.
Prices: Appetizers $7 to $16; pastas $18 to $28; entrees $23 to $51
Ambience: The spacious, stylishly lit dining room and bar invite lingering.
Service: Charming and welcoming, if a little unpolished.
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]