Gigi's Italian Restaurant is a small culinary outpost in Lake County. Tucked in a very small strip of retail stores, the eatery is easy to pass by when you are heading east on State Road 46 from Mount Dora to Sanford.
One of a handful of restaurants that serve Sorrento and the surrounding area, Gigi's has a neighborly vibe. The interior is plain, but there's a welcoming warmth from the servers as soon as you step through the door.
Their greetings may sound like affectations but they are sincere and add to the home-style appeal of Gigi's. It's not unusual for first-timers to be welcomed like old friends.
The diminutive dining room is a mix of comfortable booths and tables. The menu is broad in scope, which is not unusual for a family-style Italian eatery. The entrees are grouped as "house specialties": pizzas, calzones, strombolis and traditional Italian pasta dishes.
At a mom-and-pop eatery such as this, the basics usually shine because sauces and techniques are the stuff of family pride. And owner Luigi Folgore, who was born in Naples, Italy, does not disappoint.
For appetizers, the mussels in red sauce ($9.30) shine. The shellfish meat was plump and the sauce had nice earthy notes of oregano, a faint wisp of onions, and lots of garlic on the finish. Breadsticks are best for sopping up the bowl juices. (The buttery-good garlic knots are not the best foil for the liquid.)
The chicken piccata ($15.45) on angelhair pasta was an elegant surprise. The pounded-flat breast was lightly floured and sauteed to perfection. Pan drippings, fresh lemon juice and capers melded for the light sauce. I have been in more highfalutin restaurants that couldn't capture the simple elegance of a piccata. (By the way, piccata is Italian for veal escalope, which is the meat of origin for this dish.)
Spaghetti with meatballs ($9.95) was a behemoth presentation. The slow-cooked sauce had nice notes of herbs and sweet onions. The huge meatballs were nicely packed and full-flavored. They were so good, we plan to order them to-go ($1.45 each) the next time we are out this way.
Pizzas were flying out the door for takeout on both visits. You can build your own pie with various toppings or choose one of four house specialties. We opted for the deluxe ($13.75, $15.75 and $17.75) with a kitchen-sink roster of toppings including pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, sweet green peppers, translucent onions, black olives and a hefty addition of mozzarella. (Anchovies are optional.)
We were carb-loaded so we skipped dessert, but the cheesecake ($3.75) was the most popular sweet being ordered around us.
Tiny Gigi's is big on flavor. The eatery will never give Antonio's in Maitland or Christini's in Orlando a run for their money. Gigi's, which reminds me of a smaller version La Forchetta in Kissimmee, is unpretentious but full of heart.
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Gigi's Italian Restaurant
** out of four
Where: 25444 State Road 46 in Sorrento (at County Road 435)
When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
How much: $4.95-$17.75
Beverages: Beer, wine and soft drinks