Involtini di Pollo
Many Valley restaurants are crowded and noisy on Friday nights. If you'd rather celebrate the end of the work week with a quiet evening out, Gio Cucina in Encino is a great choice. While I don't agree with the old LA Times review that hails Gio Cucina as the best Italian food in the Valley, they do serve up solid food at reasonable prices and provide excellent service in a relaxed, low-key setting.
Gio Cucina is nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall on the second story of a strip mall. Parking is scant, but we were still able to get a spot at 7:00. We considered a quiet, breezy outdoor table on the balcony, but overruled it due to the plastic chairs, car dealership view, and potential to be frequently interrupted by other restaurant visitors walking past (in the end, I don't think any of these things really would have detracted from the joy of having a relatively secluded table and fresh air, and I will probably sit there on my next visit). The restaurant's interior is nothing to brag about, though it's clear that the owners put thought into making a minimalist space look as elegant as possible with lace curtains, white tablecloths and linen napkins. Though there are only about ten tables, you'll still have plenty of breathing room since they aren't crammed together Westside-style.
Our dinner started with complementary mini bruschetta topped with fresh, juicy tomatoes (all of the restaurant's vegetables are fresh), along with fresh dinner rolls and a tangy, dijon mustard-infused olive tapenade (who knew olives and mustard went together so well?). The tapenade had a strong enough flavor to still stand out even when eaten with bread, unlike some other olive tapenades I've had that taste like nothing more than ground up canned black olives. I could have eaten the bread and olive tapenade all night, and they would have let me, too--they offered us more bread twice. Alas, most of us can't eat six dinner rolls and still have room for entrees and dessert.
Duetto di Ravioli, Pollo e Aragosta
For entrees, I tried one pasta dish and one secondi. The Duetto di Ravioli consists of candy-shaped chicken-filled ravioli in a light cream sauce paired with lobster and shrimp-stuffed ravioli in a pink sauce. Gio Cucina brags that their pasta is made fresh daily. While I commend their efforts, I'm afraid that I'm not enough of a pasta connoisseur to tell the difference. I thought that the pasta wasn't cooked enough, as the folded edges of the candy-shaped ravioli were a little too chewy, but some might argue that the pasta was cooked al dente and I tend to like overcooked pasta. The ravioli fillings were very flavorful, but the sauce was a little lacking both in flavor and quantity for my tastes. On the other hand, I often find cream sauces to be too heavy, and I didn't experience any burnout on this dish.
The secondi I tried was the Involtini di Pollo, a rolled breast of chicken stuffed with ricotta, sun-dried tomatoes, and spinach, cooked in a white wine sauce and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. The chicken was moist and properly cooked (save for a few bits that got a little dried out in the oven). I couldn't taste the sun-dried tomatoes at all, a real shame since they might have provided a little kick that the dish lacked, though it was still quite good. The white wine sauce complemented the flavors of the chicken and also went so well with the perfectly-cooked broccoli that I actually ate and enjoyed the broccoli, and that's saying a lot coming from someone who swore off the vegetable long ago. Again, I wished there had been more sauce, but I do tend to drench my food in sauce. The serving sizes of both dishes were adequate, reminiscent of healthier European portion sizes and not the gigantic American portions that are making our country obese. Of course, I like to have leftovers, and we easily finished both of our entrees with room left over for dessert. The entree prices were very reasonable, at about $15 each. Most entrees fall in the $10 - $15 range.
For dessert, I had the panna cotta with fresh raspberry sauce. The panna cotta had a perfectly smooth texture, but little flavor save for the raspberry sauce, which had a very pleasant tang. The better dessert choice was the Terrina di Cioccolato con Amaretti. A true chocolate-lovers desert, the terrina di cioccolato was the densest chocolate chocolate dessert I've ever eaten, more comparable to fudge than to cake, with a bittersweet chocolate flavor. It came with a very flavorful amaretti ice cream that had the pleasantly icy texture of homemade ice cream. I would not order the panna cotta again, but I would re-order the terrina. We were also offered a chocolate souffle, but I was skeptical since it was offered at the end of our meal, and a proper souffle takes a while to bake (I'm pretty sure our waiter was new, but he was still very good).
The service was incredibly attentive. We were given our choice of tables, bread and bruschetta hit the table mere minutes after we were seated, our drinks were always refilled promptly, and we didn't have to wait too long for our entrees. It did take me forever to decide what to order--the menu is extensive and varied. Gio Cucina also serves pizzas, soups, salads, and is open for lunch on weekdays in addition to dinner every night except Sunday. Being such a small operation, its hours are limited, so make sure to check the schedule before you go.
Overall, I really enjoyed my experience at Gio Cucina Napoletana. Though the food had some imperfections and didn't blow me away with its flavor, the dishes were still solidly prepared and I really appreciated the wide variety of menu options (including things I don't normally see on Italian menus). The service was excellent, the prices are very reasonable, and while the atmosphere isn't really nice enough for a date, it's pleasantly unpretentious and down-to-earth. You don't need to dress up to dine here, and you can bring your kids (and if you're sans-kiddos, don't worry--despite the family-friendly atmosphere, there weren't any issues with screaming or out of control children).
Gio Cucina Napoletana
15826 Ventura Blvd # M (on the north side of the street)
Encino, CA 91436
Gio Cucina Website
Gio Cucina Menu
Lunch: M-F, 11:30-2:30
Dinner: M-F, 5:00 - 9:30, Sat. 5:30 - 10:00