Dining at Bistro Ginolina is like taking a trip to Rome and eating your way south to the Amalfi Coast. Flavors here are bold. The emphasis is on organic ingredients, but many items such as the burrata and mozzarella and some of the divine specialty desserts are imported from Italy for this first-class bistro.
Every seat at the bar was taken on a recent Friday evening, some patrons were enjoying wine at a high-top cocktail table outside, and the restaurant itself was nearly full. Not bad for a four-month-old establishment during a recession.
The menu is a nice mix of appetizers, salads, first and second courses featuring meat and fish, pastas and wood-fired pizzas.
Pizzas and pasta servings are large and meant to be shared. In fact, most of the plates were huge. Italians are very generous with food and diners are bound to leave with leftovers.
The name is a combination the two owners first names. Host Gino LaMotta is originally from Naples and front-of-the-house man at the old Salute and Giorgio's in Greenbrae. His partner is Lina Rossotti, who bartends and has many years in front-of-the-house experience. Chef Federico Rusciano is from Capri, where his father had a restaurant and he learned the business.
Bistro Ginolina looks like it could be in Rome, with dark wood chairs, banquettes and ladder back bar stools complementing the luminous yellow-painted walls. Floors are large red tiles setting off square mosaic-tile columns separating the bar from the dining room.
A curved copper topped bar is the focal point, along with a glowing wood-fired pizza oven and semi-open kitchen. If you eat at the bar, the chefs and waiters become the show.
In the dining room, square tables topped with white linens are set point-to-point in two rows from front to back of the restaurant. Overhead are three marvelous amber chandeliers from the tiny Venetian island, Murano.
The lighting at Bistro Ginolina is some of the best I've seen in a restaurant. Not so dark that you can't read the menu or work on a project, but soft enough to make the room glowy and romantic when the sun goes down.
Though pulled back, curtains soften the windows but you can still see folks strolling by. Large dark brown wood salt and pepper shakers pick up the same color of the dark wood chairs. It is clear that much time and thought went into the décor.
Waiters, who are all Italian, wear long black ties, long black aprons and white shirts.
On the Third Street sidewalk there are several lacquered tabletops some with cupids, some with flowers.
Our waiter seemed genuinely invested in helping us have the very best experience possible.
A black wire bread basket contained crusty dense bread and is offered with a bowl of garlic and herb olive oil for dipping. Strong, but very good. Balsamic is available if you ask.
The imported Italian cutlery is heavier than usual for a restaurant. The imported stemware sparkles. China is white except for the hand painted Italian square presentation plate which held our branzino and vegetables.
The menu is the essence of Italy
We ordered the burrata con pomodori ($10.50) with exquisitely ripe plum tomatoes encircled by a ring of chopped basil and drops of olive oil. Crispy crostini accented the plate. Simple and perfect.
From the pasta selections, we opted for the linguine con carciofi e aragosta ($18.50) with lobster, artichokes and saffron cream. Large pieces of lobster claw, cooked to perfection, were complemented by the fresh shaves of artichoke heart. We declined the offer for grated cheese because it would overpower the delicate lobster and conflict with the saffron cream.
The pizzas at Bistro Ginolina are made with either wheat or white dough. We ordered pizza con gorgonzola ($13.50). It is about 12 inches in diameter and could serve three or four as a starter. Slices of prosciutto blanketed the thin pizza crust, which had first been slathered with gorgonzola and then layered with paper thin slices of pears. The center of the pizza was a bit undercooked though the crust edges were great. The combination of the thick salty prosciutto with the gorgonzola was a little too, well, salty. So this dish was slightly disappointing.
For the mains, we ordered the branzino arrosto ($27.95), a delicate Italian whole sea bass deftly deboned tableside. This is a simple dish, exactly like you find in Italy, and its two filets are meant for sharing. It comes with a bowl of first-press olive oil with garlic and herbs and lemon to squeeze on top, just as they do in Italy.
Alongside were sautéed potatoes, slightly over-salted but crispy, and fresh spinach with slices of garlic .
One look at the dessert menu and they are a must have even if you're already full. Costing from $4.50 to $7, they include rum baba, sfogliatelle, mascarpone cheesecake, tartufo a' lemoncello, cioccolato tartufo, tiramisu and chocolate mousse, as well as several gelatos and sorbets including blood orange, a personal favorite. Half the desserts are house made and half flown here from Italy.
While we were deciding, we ordered the dessert wine from Calabria, Librandi "le Passule" Vino Passito 2007 ($9 a glass), which turned out to be a superb and not too sweet way to round out the fabulous meal.
We shared the tartufo a' lemoncello, a heavenly ball shaped halo of delicately flavored lemoncello ice cream that surrounds a tart hit of lemoncello liqueur sorbet in the middle.
The center tastes like a strong bite of lemon rind and with sharp jolt of booze. On the plate you will find squiggles of fruit puree and a few raspberries. Luscious and light. The pronounced lemon flavor cuts any olive oil previously consumed.
Sinatra and sfogliatelle
I returned to Bistro Ginolina early on a Sunday evening, by myself and was made very comfortable. A large screen television that I had found out of place on my previous visit, was showing a Frank Sinatra appearance, and I couldn't have been happier.
I ordered a Caesar salad ($8), eggplant parmesan ($14), sfogliatelle ($6.50) and a small carafe of Sangiovese ($8).
The Caesar is huge, so split it unless all you want is a salad. Light green inner romaine leaves are held together by a ring of green pepper and that bundle is surrounded by several layers of soft baby lettuce leaves. Crunchy croutons top this off and the creamy dressing has a strong flavor that anchovy lovers will enjoy.
I always like the idea of eggplant parmesan but in most restaurants this dish is overweight. Typically it's laden with way too much gooey cheese and the eggplant itself is greasy. This presentation comes in a small cast iron pan and is surprisingly light. It's easy on the cheese so the eggplant flavor really comes through with a wonderful rich and thick tomato sauce.
With this came a slice of focaccia straight from the pizza oven and it was delicious. Simple, crisp, perfect, brushed just with olive oil and sprinkled a few sprigs of rosemary and a pinch of coarse salt. I wanted another slice but held back from asking for it because I knew I wanted the sfogliatelle.
Even if you can't pronounce it, you need to try it. This clam shaped pastry originated in Naples. The Italian word means many leaves, or many layers, which is correct in this case, as many leaves of pastry encase a rich filling of ricotta and candied orange peel.
At Bistro Ginolina, two of these pastries are served warm and presented with whipped cream in between. The large white plate is decorated with dots of pureed sauces and slices of fruit around. It's crunchy and much lighter than the pastry of cannoli and even better than a croissant. In fact, I would love to have sfogliatelle for breakfast. Lore has it that only nuns living in convents had the time to make these pastries.
Italian lessons included
LaMotta really had fun helping me to pronounce it correctly. When you say it fast, the sound of the word "sfogliatelle" is similar to the Italian word "spogliami" which means "undress me." So, if you are on a romantic date at Bistro Ginolina, you might want to order this dessert.
I was impressed that even early on a Sunday there were several tables with couples and three friends already dining at the bar. By the time I left at 7 p.m., the place was really filling up and even had a large party of 10.
On another visit, the diners at the table next to us were wondering about the fried lemons on their plate of fritto misto ($10.50). They didn't understand the concept. I leaned over and told them that I think fried lemon just might be the best part of a proper Italian fritto misto. I think they agreed.
I highly recommend Bistro Ginolina and think the stylish restaurant is a great addition to the San Rafael scene.
Would I go back? Already made a reservation for next week.
About the wine list
Even the wine list is thoughtful, a nice mix from Italy and California. The Italian wines, reds and whites and rose, come from all the great wine regions you may have visited in Italy.
Start with a glass of 2007 Bisol "Crede" Prosecco di Valdobbiadene ($7) while deciding what to order.
We were excited to see the white Cantina Grotta del Sole 2006, from the island of Ischia ($36) because we love the island and because we remembered that the Biancolella grape grows exclusively there, on hillside vineyard terraces. This dry white wine has good body and subtle fruit flavor. And the Pinot Grigio is fromVenice, Della Scala 2009 ($28).
Wines come by the glass, in a charming half carafe, or by the bottle. Prices range from $7 to $9.50, half carafes are from $14 to $21, and bottles are from $22 to $88, with many good choices in the $20 to $40 range. A half carafe of Ramazzotti's Sangiovese 2007, Dry Creek, is $16 while a bottle is $32. Sweet cherries hit your palate first, followed by a vanilla finish, perfect with pasta.
901 B St., San Rafael
Open continuously from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily
Full bar, major credit cards accepted