From the quaint muraled nooks of the original Gino's Ristorante in downtown Boise to its new suburban strip mall home, the arc of Gino's lifespan says something about good business sense and the art of evolution. Those who've been in Boise a while remember when Gino Vuolo officially reset the bar in the Italian food genre. His simple Italian food and nightly rounds through the dining room easily won over a regular crowd. We watched the gelato come and go in the Gino's Grill space, across the breezeway from Gino's Ristorante, and eventually, we wondered if the Grill wasn't putting out a menu that bested the original. When the Grill closed and the number of butts in seats evaporated just as downtown Boise's restaurant scene threatened to grind to a halt a few years back, Vuolo decided to drop downtown Boise like a hot ravioli and head west. Way west.
These days, reaching Gino's requires planning. Gone are the days when a happy hour could easily roll into a drop-in dinner at Gino's. Now, one needs to gas up the car, consider drive time and perhaps even pack the GPS. Once there, taking in the partially vacant strip mall, which stands among empty fields and giant outcrops of tightly compact housing, it's difficult not to recognize the turn in your stomach as something other than hunger.
Over a cocktail and warm focaccia bread is when the serious reconciling begins. A full bar is definitely an improvement. The menus of the Grill and the Ristorante have mostly merged into one dynamite selection at the new location. The slightly biting red pepper flake and olive oil dipping sauce is still in the running as the best in town. The new location is crawling with waitstaff, though none manage as well as the one cheeky Italian-accented server who once manned the Grill. And Vuolo still makes the rounds in the dining room, greeting every table and calling out to many guests by name.
As for the food, it's exactly as you'll remember it. Bursting red sauces, firmly pliable pastas, butter-knife tender meats. On my most recent visit, I caught up with old favorites. Beef carpaccio was pierced with strong lemon and dusted heavily in Parmesan ($9). Lilac- and cream-colored rings and tentacles of fried calamari were thinly battered and lightly fried ($8). Sturdy eggplant Parmesan was multi-layered and sauce-smothered ($15). A last minute switch had us swapping our usual boar shank for the lamb version ($25), which proved easily as tender.
If all that sounds fairly traditional in the face of gimmicky chain restaurant Italian food, it is. What Gino's plates up is not innovative, nor is it fancy, and that, I'd wager, is exactly why it endures. Coupled with Vuolo's unwavering and ever-present gratitude to his clientele, that is why even those of us who sorely miss the downtown location are willing to trek--literally--out to the new spot and pack it full nearly every night. And if the pang of nostalgia hangs on beyond the olive oil dipping sauce, wait for Vuolo to come around and ask about your food.
--Rachael Daigle likes a bite of dipping sauce that bites back.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Gino's Italian Ristorante.