Sunday, November 9, 2014


Any time a new locally owned restaurant opens, I cross my fingers that it will be a success. And when it opens in a building that holds many happy memories for me and my husband Jack, I’m even more hopeful.

So it was that we could hardly wait to try Giorgio’s Ristorante, which held a grand opening in mid-October on the U.S. Route 422 “strip” just outside Niles. Most recently, it was a Brown Derby - which had become a routine stop after we returned from any overnight vacation and I wasn’t in the mood to even think about cooking dinner. In a more meaningful incarnation, though, it housed a Bombay Bicycle Club, one of my all-time favorite restaurants. Never, I’m quite certain, will I find a Cobb salad that can hold a candle to the giant bowl served up there (the bloody Marys and Long Island iced teas were memorable as well).

At the outset, I’ll say Giorgio’s is likely to have a tough go at it; in the first place, this is Niles; there’s an authentic Italian restaurant on just about every corner (no, Olive Garden doesn’t count in my book, although I do enjoy the food there). In the second place, while the exterior has a great new look, the inside offers virtually no hint of an Italian heritage. It’s a pleasant atmosphere, with dark wood booths and tables and a small fireplace at the end of one of the two dining areas; but for the most part the interior hasn’t changed much from the last couple of occupants.

I’m okay with that, actually. But from a marketing standpoint - and I confess maybe I've watched one too many episodes of Bar Rescue on Spike TV - there’s nothing special to stand out in the minds of customers (i.e., brand identity). Besides that, after two visits, I must say the place would do well by making a few improvements in food and customer service as well (more on that later).

Our first visit came not long after the grand opening with friends Jerry and Barb, and we arrived shortly before 5:30 on a Friday evening. We figured we’d have to wait a bit, but we got lucky and snagged what may have been the only remaining table. Shortly thereafter, all heck broke loose customer-wise; the waiting line just kept expanding (perhaps I should note that it was the night before Sweetest Day, so that may have had something to do with the large crowd).

Even then, we didn’t have a long wait for a server to appear; busy as she obviously was, she was friendly to the point of bubbly. We decided to start with shared appetizers - hot peppers in oil ($3) and bruschetta ($6) and, of course, something to drink (Jack and I picked draught beers, albeit different kinds).

Just one swallow later, we learned that was a mistake. Jack’s beer was totally undrinkable (he sent it back and opted for a bottle instead); mine tasted watered down, but not so much that I wasn't willing to live with it. Thankfully, when we sampled the appetizers, the beer didn’t matter so much. The peppers were on the hot side with a wonderful flavor (great for me to eat straight from the dish but not so hot that the others weren't able to nibble on tiny bits on pieces of the rolls that arrived with our drinks). Fine with me, I said as I polished off almost the entire dish.

The bruschetta, which appeared to be two of the dinner rolls that were brought previously in a basket (much like ciabatta rolls) sliced in half, were topped with a very flavorful combination of cheese, tomatoes and basil. There are four on the place, but each is rather small; next time we’ll know to get a single order for every two of us there happens to be.

For entrees, Jack chose his usual Italian favorite linguine with red clam sauce ($12), while I finally settled on cheese ravioli, going with marinara instead of pink sauce ($12). Jerry and Barb picked chicken ($12) and shrimp Mediterranean ($14), respectively (same dish, different main ingredient). All except me ordered salads as their side; if wedding soup is on the menu - as it is here - I’ll always give that a try.

The soup broth was tasty, and the cup was loaded with lots of tiny meatballs. As is his custom, Jack asked for extra dressing on his salad (all three got the house Italian). As it turned out, he needn’t have asked; the iceberg lettuce - the only greens in the salads, BTW - was swimming in dressing (which was tasty, they agreed) so no extra was needed.

Then our entrees arrived, and we all tucked in. Jack really liked the red clam sauce. Sadly, it was only then (when, knowing my preference, Jack asked the server about it) that I learned it can be ordered with white sauce as well. I’d passed over the only other option I saw on the menu - seafood linguine in white sauce - which included shrimp, mussels and clams but at $17.99 is way out of my price range. Oh well, I said, maybe next time I’ll ask, although I questioned why it wasn't listed on the menu and thus no asking would be necessary. Meantime, I enjoyed the ravioli - and although the sauce didn’t have a to-die-for flavor, it was on the thick and very tomato-y side and quite good. 

While our friends weren’t unhappy with their choices, both said the sauce lacked flavor (in olive oil, fresh garlic, tomatoes and basil over fettuccine). The shrimp were tender and not chewy (although Barb said a couple more would have been an improvement); Jerry said he’d have preferred a whole chicken breast instead of chunks. Still, both of them cleaned off their plates, as did the two of us (well, I had one ravioli left when I ran out of room - not enough to bother taking home).

Our next visit came a couple of weeks later, when Jack and I stopped around 12:30 p.m. on a weekday for lunch. Although there were several cars in the parking lot, when we walked in the door, we almost gasped; the hostess table, located right at the entrance against a partition that separates the two dining areas, was completely dark (as was one side of the restaurant). Whoa, we said - is the place open for business?

Then we glanced to the right and saw the light: In that room, at least three tables were occupied. So, we stood our ground, waiting - and waiting some more - for someone to acknowledge us. After several minutes, we deliberately moved over to stand in the lit-up dining room. Even then, we waited a couple more minutes before anyone paid the slightest attention.

Okay, Macbeth took the words right out of my mouth: Hold enough! Walking into any restaurant and finding no one staffing the greeting station is an invitation for trouble; it’s unthinkable that the station would be totally in the dark, thus allowing customers to enter unnoticed. Clearly, other folks don't disagree; after we were seated, two couples came in, stood in the dark looking a bit confused for a few minutes - then turned around and walked right back out.

Although it was almost impossible to see it in the dark, a small chalkboard at the entrance listed one or two specials including $2 bottles of Corona. Sounds great, I said, and after we were seated and our server - another friendly one - came to take our drink order. But never one to trust signs (especially ones I can’t see very well), I asked her to confirm the beer deal. Another surprise: She had no clue what I was talking about. Finally, she agreed we were probably right, so Corona it was for both of us. But as we ordered, I made a mental note that when we got the bill and the charge exceeded the two bucks each, I would make my protest known all the way to the rooftops.

After a longer-than-should-be wait given the number of other diners, our server appeared once again - but to take our lunch order and apologize for not bringing the beers. “No one is behind the bar,” she explained. Say what? Even if that were true, all we wanted was bottled beer - the special of the day, no less. You can’t reach in and grab them for us?

For our entrees, chosen from the lunch menu, Jack decided on a meatball sub sandwich ($6), which comes with a choice of fries, soup or salad. He picked a salad once again, this time with thousand island dressing (again asking for double the usual amount). My choice was chicken piccata, a breast with fresh garlic, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, lemon and butter sauce ($8). Since I’d already tasted the wedding soup, I opted for the soup of the day, cheese tortellini.

It took several more minutes before our beers were delivered, along with a plate of rolls. Not long thereafter came the salad and soup, but wait: This time, the salad dressing was on the side in a small container, but no extra as Jack had ordered. And - yet another surprise - my cheese tortellini soup apparently had morphed into wedding soup.

Although I was relatively happy to eat the soup and say nothing, Jack - who needed to order more dressing anyway, insisted that I send it back and get what I’d ordered. That I did; but while he got his extra container right away, my soup didn’t make it to our table until the entrees did.

Still another shouldn’t-be happening thing; especially since my soup choice was tomato based (as was my entree), I really, really didn't want to eat them at the same time. More to the point, I'm not a happy camper when I'm trying to scarf down what was supposed to be a prelude to the main course while watching that main course get colder with every passing spoonful.

For the record, the soup was very good, as was my chicken piccata (why no capers in it I’m not sure - that’s a pretty standard ingredient in the dish). The chicken and artichoke hearts were fork tender and the sauce quite flavorful, so I gobbled up every single bite. Jack’s meatball sub, though, was so-so - to the point that he brought half of it home, where he ended up throwing it away.

Will we return? Maybe, but if we do it's only because we’re hopeful that the place will be a success; after our first two experiences neither of us is chomping at the bit to get back. And that's extremely disappointing, because this place has real potential (and I certainly like the location). Hopefully, the kinks we encountered stem from being new at the restaurant game and will get untangled before it’s too late. Stay tuned!

If you go:

Giorgio’s Ristorante
1231 Youngstown-Warren Road
Niles, Ohio 44446

Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday. Find the menu under the “About” tab on Facebook.