When a design team like Munge Leung is hired to breathe new life into an old auto body shop, you just know it's going to be a hotbed for hipsters. And the King West locale of Gusto 101 is just that, a swank two-storey showcase of world-class industrial design, each filament, finial and fabric so exacting, it becomes a magnet for glitterati.
Like Terroni, Gusto 101 offers up reasonably-priced, rustic Italian fare framed by an appealing ambiance. Which explains why it has a very Thursday-night lo
oking crowd on a Tuesday. But if you are going to name a restaurant Gusto, meaning "tasty" in Italian, it had better be. And with the wildly successful Trattoria Nervosa in Yorkville, owner Janet Zuccarini should be pretty darn confident she can deliver on that front. With executive chef Daniel Mezzolo, former chef de cuisine at Hockley Valley Resort, putting out a mostly Southern Italian menu, and the novelty of serving red and white wine on tap (at the stupidly low price of $1 per ounce), how can it fail. With all the bases covered, great things are expected.
Famished, we begin with a lightly breaded calamari ($8.50) cooked to a perfect tenderness. Beautifully presented in a bowl on a gorgeous slab of wood with an artful display of jalapeÃ±o and cucumber giardiniera and roasted garlic aioli, this is a hands-down winner. Even a classic tartar ($11.50/$14.50) loses its traditionalist leanings, its silky concoction of roughly hewn cubes of raw beef mingling with fresh figs, arugula, truffle oil and a regal ricotta cream that elevates this dish to a level of stature all its own. Equally impressive is a simple steak salad ($15.95). Why is it so difficult to do a salad as right as this: slices of a la minute, perfectly grilled flank with a slightly charred crust partnered a peppery, grassy pile of arugula, roasted grape tomatoes, sliced avocado and shaved pecorino tossed in a zesty creamy balsamic vinaigrette. This, and a glass of wine, makes for the perfect al fresco meal.
So far so great. And the wows just keep comin'. I mean, really, a hamburger ($14.95) at an Italian restaurant? Not sure I've even seen that before. But then rarely have I seen such a great start slip into the depths of mediocrity so quickly. A bowl of spaghetti, with generous amounts of seafood ($15.95) with the thickness of udon noodles arrive a bit undercooked. But that's the least of this dish's problems. Mushy shrimp, an overly salty prosciutto broth mixed with already briny manila clams means you'll be gulping gallons of water well into the night.
It doesn't get more Italian than meatballs. But it is unusual to see them as an ingredient on a pizza ($14.95). Intriguing indeed nestled in smoked provolone with a nicely chewy crust. But the ground meat is dry and chalky and the tomato sauce flat lines on flavour. The pressed-brick Moroccan-spiced chicken ($18.95) boasts an incredibly crispy skin complemented by nicely crispy fingerling potatoes and seasoned wilted spinach, but no avoiding that the bird is tough and dry. Then the real disaster hits with an eggplant parmigiana ($13.95) sitting in an oil spill as large as the Exxon Valdez, its thick, uncooked edges collapsing into the centre. Despite the simplest of ingredients that also include tomato sauce and smoked mozzarella, and a stray strand of hair melted into the cheese. Don't just take our word for it; minutes later another table sends it back.
How could something with so much promise revert to something so ordinary? Desserts are mixed too: a rosebud cinnamon bun ($3.95) is set apart from a Cinnabon with the addition of an eyedropper-full of rose liqueur stabbed into its side. While a s'mores crÃ¨me brulee ($3.95) served way too cold to register any flavour is an unappetizing finish to a teeter totter of a meal. Really, who wants a dessert that looks like liver parfait sealed with duck fat; I don't care that it's homemade and only $3.95.
But believe it or not the evening was far from a total write-off. And all it took was a splendid waiter named Seneca who puts his heart and soul into server satisfaction. He even did a toothpick run in the middle of his slammed section. I'd come back just for the honour of having him be my server, and of course, that great steak salad.