As the sun set behind him, a voracious jet-skier was yahooing while he churned up the water on Lake Ivanhoe. On the water and off, dusk is a great time of day to enjoy the view from Gaston Edwards Park, off Orange Avenue -- the downtown skyline stands in shadow against the natural light. So my plan to dine at Gargi's (pronounced "GAR-jee's") at dusk was rewarded, the arched windows in the dining room beautifully framing the pastel reflections. Even closer to the water -- and the wind -- is the landscaped terrace, full of diners this night, serenaded by several musicians. This would be a very romantic place to enjoy a drink or dinner and dessert, if the weather was right.
Within moments of being seated inside, we were taken off-guard, as arms from the formally dressed wait staff flew across our table, delivering menus, filling water glasses, helping with chairs and napkins. (It was right out of the now-classic "Bellissima!" skits with Kirstie Alley on "Saturday Night Live.") In 12 minutes, we were sipping drinks and sampling the aromatic bruschetta ($4.95). Though the staff's exuberance wore down as the evening went on, the initial swarm was spectacular.
I'm one of those people who never ate at the old Gargi's, which stood seemingly forever in a hideaway location across the street. That spot is now Wilfredo's, owned by a former Gargi's employee. Also across the street, diagonally, is longstanding Tirami Su. Together they form a competitive triangle of three very different styles of Italian restaurants.
It does seem that Gargi's owner made a sweet deal with the city, when he leased the northwest piece of the park to build his restaurant afresh. So, other than rumors and reputation -- that Gargi's is a hangout for Tony Soprano-types and that the diehards for the original hadn't taken to the change -- our impressions of Gargi's also were fresh. And what the restaurant has going for it is a sense of tradition, rich and classic Italian tradition, served in an atmosphere of familial warmth and forgiveness. (You must be forgiving to eat here.)
So, for instance, when the second Ultimat dirty martini ($7) had been sitting in our sight on the bar in the alcove behind us for way too long and Roberto the waiter knew it, he offered to pull the unique bottle of Polish vodka from the bar and share it. "Hey, look at the bottle, it's-a beautiful, no?" he charmed, handing over the heavy glass square of a blue bottle for inspection. This kind of stuff works. And the glass of dry Chilean cabernet sauvignon Roberto recommended was right on the money too ($8.50).
We ordered specials all around, except that some of the specials are already on the regular menu, but, whatever, eh? That's the case with "Gargi's grouper Francese" ($21.95), battered and fried, then saut?ed in lemon butter and topped with capers, and with the "lobster fra diavolo" ($22.95). But the osso buco ($21.95) was a special offer, and it turned out to be the best of the three dishes we ordered.
There was a little trickery with the osso buco: I asked if it was veal and Roberto said no, it was beef. Whatever, eh? So call me gullible, but I bought it and thoroughly enjoyed this Italian version of pot roast, with carrots and a beefy tomato gravy. It's considered a comfort food for a cold night, and I'll consider it again on such an evening. Served over perfectly cooked risotto, the tender veal shank fell away from the center bone, filled with roasted marrow -- a delicate fork buried inside for savoring. (At home, the dog worked it well into Sunday.)
The taste and preparation of the grouper was fine, but the thawed fillet had a mushy texture. The accompanying broccoli and mashed potatoes made for another filling, home-style meal. The lobster fra diavolo looked the most colorful, served with the Florida lobster tail on the plate, over linguini, and covered in the crushed tomato and herb sauce. After the presentation, it would be worthwhile to ask the kitchen to remove the tough but tasty meat, if you don't want to struggle with it.
Both the bruschetta and the dinner salads benefited from the quality and freshness of simple ingredients, such as olive oil and herbs. There was nothing fancy about them, but they tasted fresh and familiar. And the same could be said of the desserts we tried, tiramisu and cannoli ($4.25 each) -- both were fresh and filling without being overly rich.
So Roberto didn't make it to our salads with the biggest pepper grinder I've ever seen, or make sure our coffee cups were refilled. A table of ladies across the room was running him wild and we had fun watching. Next time, eh?