Location, location, location is the key to business success (or so say the real estate people), and that goes triple for restaurants. But in the case of a wonderfully accomplished place named Gio Cucina Napoletana, all bets are off.
It's a boxy upstairs dining room (the former Il Balcone and O Sole Mio) in the second story of a well-hidden strip mall, directly above a dry-cleaning establishment and a Chinese takeout. In the evening, try not to sit near the door, because neon lights will be flashing in your face while you dine.
These shortcomings are a small price to pay for what just might be, dollar for dollar, the Valley's best Italian restaurant. Owner Giovanni di Crisci comes from Naples; despite the restaurant's name, call him Gianni, not Gio. With chef Roberto Castellanos, he has put together a bilingual menu of authentic dishes showcasing both Gio's home province of Campania and other regions of Italy.
First-time visitors should start with zeppolelle con le alghette di mare, a terrific street food that in Naples is sold piping hot in paper bags on the docks. These are bite-sized pieces of deep-fried pizza dough, coated with bits of crunchy green seaweed and big crystals of sea salt. In texture they resemble a Southwestern sopaipilla, but the flavor is ultra-sophisticated.
Then there are Gio's cracker-thin, imaginatively conceived pizzas, which put most of the pies on the Boulevard to shame. The tastiest is pizza Napoletana: yeasty dough lightly brushed with tomato sauce and topped with half a dozen anchovies, a handful of capers and a sprinkle of oregano. The light and capricious pizza mimosa is topped with mozzarella, fresh corn, ham and sweet basil; no tomato. Pizza rotolo is rolled up like a jelly roll with cheese, tomato sauce, arugula and prosciutto.
The appetizers are terrific, especially fritto misto di mare: fried calamari, prawns and bay scallops with a sweet-tart Neapolitan tomato sauce to dip them in. Equally good is the homey pasta e fasule di Mamma Caterina. Many Italian provinces claim bean-and-pasta soup. Gio's version features beans (whole, not mashed) and lots of chewy macaroni in a garlicky stock.
One dish clearly not from Naples is tortelloni di zucca al profumo di salvia, largish ravioli filled with a sweet, buttery pumpkin puree and drenched in sage butter. This might be the best dish on Gio's menu, but the owner just shrugs when it is ordered. "For me," he says, "it is a little too sweet."
The same delicious homemade pasta dough is formed into a slightly different shape for ravioletti di melanzane e formaggio di capra. These are just small ravioli with an eggplant and goat cheese filling, but there is just enough cheese to add tang, and the pasta itself is delightfully fresh and chewy. The unusual timballo di tagliatelle is composed of thin noodles pressed together into a drum shape and baked. Layered among the noodles is a complexity of components: peas, mushrooms, prosciutto and Parmesan.
There are only a few meat courses, but each one does the kitchen proud. Salsicce e friarielli is a coil of grilled Italian sweet sausage ringed by a saute of the Italian green rapini. Costolette di agnello is four lean, flavorful grilled lamb chops coated in rosemary, oregano and garlic. And then there is the distinctive galletto ruspante, an entire marinated baby chicken. The bird is first brushed with Dijon mustard and a hot pepper oil, then grilled--weighted down with a stone. It's spectacular.
The menu tells us the desserts are fatti in casa, made on the premises. Terrina di cioccolato con amaretti is a rich, dark chocolate confection that could easily pass for French were it not for the tiny embedded pieces of amaretto cookie. Sfogliatelle caldo is a palm-sized puff pastry--a specialty of Naples--served hot from the oven with a light, lemon-scented ricotta filling.
Beside stellar performers like these, Gio's merely workmanlike tiramisu and dense cannoli seem downright unworthy, even in so modest a location.
Gio Cucina Napoletana, 15826 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30-10 p.m. Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Dinner for two, $28-$46. Suggested dishes: zeppolelle con le alghette di mare, $4.50; pizza Napoletana, $7.95; tortelloni di zucca, $10.50; galletto ruspante, $12; terrina di cioccolato, $4. Beer and wine only. Parking lot. All major cards. (818) 905-7610.