Gino Vuolo didn’t have to look into a crystal ball six years ago when he moved his popular Italian restaurant from Downtown Boise.
He knew Meridian was becoming Idaho’s fastest growing city and wanted to situate his eatery, Gino’s Italian Ristorante, smack dab in the center of the suburban sprawl.
Of course back then, the area surrounding the strip mall where he set up shop, at the corner of McMillan and Ten Mile roads, hadn’t been fully developed — and it’s still a work in progress. But Vuolo knew that once the profusion of housing developments and apartment complexes were built, all those people would need a place to enjoy pasta, slowly braised lamb shanks and big glasses of vino.
His speculation seems to have paid off, as evidenced by a busy dining room and bar night after night.
Gino’s is a family affair. His welcoming and witty daughter, Jessica, waits tables, and many of the other longtime servers and cooks get treated like family as well. That friendly vibe comes across to diners.
The immense menu details a litany of starters, pasta dishes and entrées — some of which are pulled from the family recipe book, while others are newer interpretations of classic dishes.
Vuolo knows a thing or two about cooking Italian food. He was born in Naples, a southern Italian city where his grandmother’s restaurant has been in operation for more than a century. (It’s now owned by cousins.) He moved to Brooklyn as a child, and his father ran an Italian restaurant across the bridge in Manhattan for 20 years.
It’s safe to say that cooking Italian food is in his DNA.
At night, diners can score tuna carpaccio ($11), a plate draped with paper-thin slices of raw ahi — flecked with pulverized Reggiano Parmigiano, garlic, capers and scallion — drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon. It comes with grilled bread slices. Gino’s also offers beef and salmon carpaccio.
Other antipasti offerings include fried beef meatballs ($7) that are redolent of garlic and basil under a crispy exterior, yet they were a tad dry one evening. That’s the risk you run when you fry a meatball, though. But once the meaty little orbs got dipped in the fragrant house ragu (time-honored red sauce), it wasn’t such a problem.
The pasta options — the primi piatto courses, if you will — are vast and stick to the basics, with a Vuolo twist.
For instance, broccoli di rapi ($17) boasts the earthy, slightly bitter taste of long-stemmed broccoli rabe (sautéed with lots of garlic, fennel-spiked sausage and olive oil) atop a tangle of al dente spaghetti with a proper dusting of grated Reggiano Parmigiano. This is a typical primi course in southern Italy, where nobody cares if you have garlic on your breath.
People come from far and wide for Gino’s succulent lamb, osso buco and wild boar shanks.
One night, I ended up going with the lamb shank ($30), slowly braised with tomato sauce, garlic, herbs and red wine until the meat barely clings to the large bone. The super-tender shank came on a plate the size of a hubcap with chewy little nuggets of gnocchi coated in chunky pan sauce.
A glass of Avignonesi Cantaloro ($8), a robust red blended wine from Tuscany, played well with the earthy flavors on the plate.
Most diners choose tiramisu for dessert at Gino’s, but I was craving crème brulee ($7). It wasn’t long before our attentive server was headed our way with a ceramic ramekin and a blow torch. With a flick and a flame, she quickly caramelized the sugar that was packed tightly atop the custard, giving off an alluring burnt sugar smell. After cracking the sugar shell, we devoured the ultra-creamy custard pocked with brandy-drenched cherries.
During a lunch visit, it was a toss up between brick-oven pizza or a big, puffy calzone.
After some deliberation with my dining partner, I chose a Bianca calzone ($17.50), golden brown and crispy on the outside, oozing molten goat cheese, marinated artichoke hearts, sautéed spinach and sweet caramelized onion.
An order of baked ravioli ($12) also was comforting with its puffy, ricotta-filled pillows situated on a skiff of ragu sauce with melted mozzarella and parmesan on top.
The Caldo e Freddo salad ($12), which means a little bit warm and a little bit cold, had everything but the kitchen sink in it. A bowl of mixed greens, tossed in zesty balsamic vinaigrette, came mingled with crisp sweet bell pepper, broccoli, peas, sautéed crimini mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, garlicky tomato sauce and grilled, sliced chicken breast — all dusted with grated Reggiano Parmigiano.
Consistency is the key to success in the restaurant industry, and Gino’s certainly has stayed constant with its food, drink and service over the years.
Statesman reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gino’s Italian Ristorante
Address: 3015 W. McMillan Road, Meridian
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Menu price range: appetizers, salads and soups $6-$15; pasta dishes and entrées $11-$30
Libation situation: A full-service bar with Mediterranean-inspired cocktails and American classics, bottled beers and a huge wine list that favors Italian varietals and blended wines.
Kid friendly? Yes
Wheelchair accessible? Yes