Sicily by Gino
563 E. Main St.
Gino and Connie Milano are back … and their delightful personalities and flavorful recipes have brought new life to the small but mighty Sicily.
The couple — who also own restaurants in Santa Barbara, Vancouver and Italy as well as a cooking school in Indonesia — left the area in 2013 to focus on their bed and breakfast in Sicily. They came back this year, reclaiming management from Ubaldo Foschi, who had operated their downtown Ventura restaurant since its early days (he now heads up Padrino’s). With Gino back in the kitchen, preparing the Sicilian family recipes he was raised on, and Connie managing front of house with her no-nonsense but friendly Scottish style, Sicily is likely to become that favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian place every city needs.
Be sure to arrive early on a Friday or Saturday. Thanks to a small footprint and a prime location right next to the movie theater downtown, Sicily fills up quickly on a weekend night. Even though we got there right at opening, the place was packed within minutes after we were seated. Plenty of tourists and first-timers made up the clientele, but there were regulars, too. Connie and even Gino both made a point of chatting them up, a nice touch that set a friendly mood.
Foodwise, simplicity seems to be what drives this cafe, and it works. No bar, just a handful of beers and 13 wines listed by varietal sans year or winery; you’ll just have to trust the proprietors I suppose. There are a few salads and appetizers for starters. And instead of bread, Connie will bring you a basket of fresh-baked pizza dough, still hot from the oven. “Simple. Versatile. Why change it?” she says by explanation — and she’s got a point. It was a treat to dip and nosh while we perused the menu.
Other than charm, what Sicily has in abundance is pasta: spaghetti in a variety of sauces, fettucine Alfredo, linguini, penne, lasagna, tortellini on occasion and even gnocchi (the only pasta made in house). And this being a Southern Italian style of cooking, the preparation is lighter. Unlike the rich, cheesy, baked-to-a-deep-golden-brown offerings of classic Northern Italian joints (of which I am an unabashed fan), Sicily’s cuisine is fresher and more delicate. It’s the yin to, say, Ferraro’s yang.
Meatball (polpettine) appetizer
The meatball (polpettine) appetizer is an excellent example: modest little spheres of perfectly seasoned meat, with just a touch of sauce and parmesan to complement but not overwhelm. This is a nice way to sample their meatballs without committing to the spaghetti and meatball entree, leaving more room to try some of the other excellent dishes … like the lasagna. With a sweet tomato sauce blanketing layers of ricotta and meat and a thin layer of fresh mozzarella melted on top, it was scrumptious to the last bite. Or consider the chicken marsala, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes. While I will happily praise the thin, moist chicken breast cutlet and wonderful sauce (applied judiciously), what made this dish truly memorable were those roasted hunks of earthy portabellas scattered on top: simply divine.
Pizza, with homemade dough
Pizza, featuring Gino’s homemade dough, is a kid pleaser — and a crowd pleaser, judging by the number of patrons ordering it. My husband and I both managed to sneak a bite, and it was great. Not a thick crust by any means, but not Neapolitan-style, either: somewhere in between and delicious. Unlike the portion sizes on Sicily’s other items (not stingy, but a bit more modest), the personal-sized pizzas at 10 inches are big enough to satisfy two hungry little boys or perhaps even two adults who share an appetizer or salad. I will be hard-pressed not to get it for myself next time.
We were running late for a movie, but the dessert case looked so good, we couldn’t resist getting a few sweet treats to go. And they were definitely worth the wait. The tiramisu might even win non-tiramisu lovers over, with ladyfingers soaked to a buttery softness and the subtleness of the coffee. A touch of citrus in the cannoli was a delightful surprise, and garnished with mini chocolate chips, it was a beautiful presentation, too. I’m not sure I could recommend one over the other.
Sicily’s wine list isn’t a show-stopper, but at $6 a glass it’s hard to complain — and the house chianti went nicely with our meal. Most pastas are under $15, meat dishes are closer to $20; not the best deal in town, but for the quality and location, the price is right. Wander in for a little taste of Southern Italy the next time you’re embarking on your night on the town. Connie and Gino will make you feel right at home.