Take the warmth of a good friendâ€™s dinner party and the elegance of a five star restaurant and concentrate it all into an intimate, picturesque space. Imagine an evening of unforgettable indulgence. And youâ€™ll begin to envision the wonder of the little place Chef Gina Stipo opened a few months ago at 2359 Frankfort Ave.
Like an unexpected gem, you could pass the tiny building by the railroad tracks a hundred times without realizing what it is.
Itâ€™s called At the Italian Table. Open by reservation only, the restaurant seats no more than 18 guests for an entire evening. Itâ€™s already booked through mid-November.
On a recent Thursday night, dinner kicks off with zuppe di cozze, a Tuscan mussel soup served over bruschetta. The mild softness of the mussels meets the crispy zest of the bruschetta in perfect balance.
Seated around two large tables, the guests tear through the first course, the already palpable excitement intensifying. Stipo scurries about to prepare the next course with the help of her two assistants, Angelina LaRosa and Jon Lee Cope.
Sporting red aprons, Stipo, LaRosa and Cope effuse such a mesmerizing enthusiasm for the food theyâ€™re serving that you canâ€™t help but feel it with them. They move about swiftly and with nimble purpose.
And when the next course comes, it proves the anticipation has been warranted. A melt-in-your-mouth Agnolotti features porcini mushrooms wrapped in pasta served with a butter sage sauce and sprinkled with parmesan. It would be impossible to source anything more locally than the sage, grown by Stipo herself in the herb garden just outside.
Stipoâ€™s fatherâ€™s parents came to the United States from Italy, and Stipo spent several years of her childhood there.
â€œI grew up with an Italian culture,â€ she says. â€œI grew up with the love of good food.â€
She honed her command of Italian cuisine when she returned years later for a 13-year stint in Siena, a city in the region of Tuscany. She travels twice a year to Italy and brings back products for the kitchen.
Stipo only cooks with whole sea salt, and thatâ€™s what flavors the steamed zucchini, along with a little garlic and fresh basil.
With a dining room that flows almost seamlessly into an open kitchen, At the Italian Table makes you feel like youâ€™ve been invited over to your friendâ€™s home for dinner. Stipo brought the furniture over from Italy. Eight guests are seated around a 300-year-old chestnut table out of a monastery.
Among the dÃ©cor is the nearly 100-year-old chitarra Stipoâ€™s grandmother used to cut pasta. Thereâ€™s a Florentine credenza from the 1700s and, in the corner, a solid iron lampstand from the 15th or 16th century.
The New York strip has been patiently waiting its turn. Stipo grills it medium rare â€“ the only way itâ€™s ever done in Tuscany, she says â€“ slices it, tops it with fresh arugula and parmigiano reggiano and carries it out with pride.
â€œA mouthful of all three of those things together is just amazing,â€ she tells the eager diners.
Indeed. The masterful trio is accompanied by some olive oil Stipo brought back from Italy and some fleur de sel, a French sea salt thatâ€™s used in parts of Italy.
One of the guests calls out to Stipo: â€œGina, I think we all have died and gone to heaven.â€
For folks whoâ€™d like to create a little heaven at home, Stipo hosts cooking classes every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. She and the students make three courses, always including a pasta, and then eat what they make.
â€œI try to make it as hands-on as possible,â€ Stipo says.
In true Italian fashion, the salad comes after the main course. Itâ€™s a soothing medley of romaine, vinegar, grape tomatoes and purple onions.
The courses have come in waves so remarkable you became enamored with each one, nearly forgetting what came before it. The evening culminates with a luscious tiramisu â€“ ladyfingers dipped in coffee and Vin Santo with mascarpone and served in dainty pots de crÃ¨me.
At the Italian Table is a place of community, where youâ€™re sure to get to know your neighbors around the table. So make plans for an extraordinary dinner with your significant other or grab some friends or go by yourself and make new friends.
Just call in advance to reserve your seat. You may even be able to get in before late November if there are any cancellations. If seats open up, Stipo will announce it on Facebook.
Photos by TIMÂ VALENTINOÂ | Contributing Photographer