Phantom Diner

Gusto – Phantom Diner, Central PA Magazine, June 2009

Written by The Phantom Diner | May 20, 2009 6:39 PM

One of your Phantom’s favorite gustatory memories, this one dating back to 1993, is of a wonderful Italian restaurant in downtown Lancaster called Gallo Rosso, the red rooster.

I wrote then that the place was the real deal, honest Italian fare without catering to the too often tame, bland or high-fat preferences of Central PA. It offered, for example, a pasta dish topped with cannellini beans and fresh broccoli rabe. Well, Gallo Rosso is long gone, and I haven’t seen beans-and-rabe pasta in our media market since.

Which is why I had high hopes for Gusto (pronounced goo'-stow), which opened last fall in downtown Lancaster.

It’s right beside Gallo Rosso’s former digs on North Queen Street (in a building that once housed an Italian-American club); and it’s run by Gallo Rosso’s former chef/owner, Ralph Mazzocchi (who’s been around and also owned/operated Mazzi in Leola).

And Gusto, which in Italian means taste or flavor, is good. But it’s not Gallo Rosso.

It’s a very comfortable little restaurant with a nice bar in the front room, even two small hideaway tables tucked back against a wall near the bar. In the dining room there are hardwood floors and lots of earth tones, interesting artwork and white linens and candles on the tables. You can come dressy. You can come casual. It is, like I said, a comfy place.

But while Gallo Rosso was at the time about as close to Italian as Central PA gets, Gusto is less so. There are Italian (more like Mediterranean) flavors. But it’s a sort of appeal-to-the-masses-type Italian (more like Mediterranean), including more fried items than most traditional trattorias offer.

Still, the menu is a good mix of the expected and the quirky.

Let’s take appetizers. There’s the omnipresent fried calamari for $10 (would someone in the region please offer the grilled version?). But then we turn from the tried and true with dishes such as “crimini cigars,” mushroom-stuffed spring rolls ($9); “carne cruda,” assorted thin-sliced Italian cured meats ($7); edamame pansotti, soybean-stuffed ravioli ($8); or crabmeat popcorn, batter-dipped and flash-fried with a jalapeño sauce ($10).

I had a simple and wonderful tuna carpaccio, razor-thin sushi-grade tuna served flattened-as-if-ironed on a large plate with wasabi and chili oil for just $9, an excellent choice, fresh and flavorful.

A quibble. After a quick drink at the bar (a well-made and reasonably priced drink, I might add), we were seated in a corner of the dining room, which is fine, but service was on us like it was working on per-table commissions.

Nice, friendly service to be sure, but too urgent, making for a too quickly paced meal.

Speaking of which, salads came quickly. And with French fries, actually shoestring potatoes so thin and crispy they resemble, at least in appearance, those skinny little potato sticks that come in cans. Gusto’s version just happens to be delicious and addictive.

But they tend to show up on everything, including salads, which almost strikes me as nutritional subterfuge; nothing tasting that good can be as good for you as a salad. OK, to be honest, only one salad comes with the potatoes (but they do show up on other dishes), and it’s clearly labeled an “arugula and French fry” salad for just $5.

There are entrees, pasta and pizza, including something called a prima donna Caesar pizza, which is grilled pizza dough stuffed with, you guessed it, Caesar salad, for $11.

Overall prices range from $9 for a thin-crust plain pizza to $32 for filet mignon, but most items are in the high teens to mid-$20s and more interesting than pizza or steak.

Again, there’s a mix of the ordinary and the unexpected — linguini with clam sauce for $16 or garlic chicken for $17.25, but also lamb-and-spinach noodles topped with fried eggplant and goat cheese for $17 and sautéed sole filets with a garlic parsley butter sauce for $24.

Lovers of Italian food will be drawn to the gnocchi, baked penne, whole-wheat linguini or spaghetti with meatball (that’s right meatball; it’s a 12-ouncer). And each offering is $17 or less.

I had a good duck-and-broccoli dish: marinated, grilled and sliced duck breast served with sautéed broccoli rabe (and those shoestring potatoes) for $23. My dining partner had spaghetti with clams, mussels, lobster, roasted peppers and peas for $25. This, too, is tasty and plentiful, though predictably long on mussels (some unopened) and short on lobster.

Another quibble. We were never offered dessert. I think it’s possible our server had a late date. And there was no espresso (unless, of course, our server had a late date).

This is a good looking little restaurant — I especially like the bar — open for lunch during the week and dinner seven days a week. There’s street parking and some lots nearby and, at least when I was there, parking at a tire dealer’s shop down the street.

I like the atmosphere at Gusto. And the food is good, some of it very good. But it’s not great, and it’s not dining as I remember on this particular stretch of Queen Street.

335 N. Queen St., Lancaster; full bar; major cards; open for lunch on weekdays; open for dinner every evening; street parking or nearby lots; reservations suggested on weekends; 717-945-6906.

Published in Phantom Diner

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