Hearing the name was all it took for me to instantly shift into judgy mode. I pictured Gibsons Italia as a sprawling, Sopranos-chic space packed with tourists, expense accounters, and people who winter in Boca catered to by waiters both thick-necked and adamant. The menu would be full of 48-ounce cuts of charred overcompensation, the kind of hulking porterhouses and tomahawk chops our president would douse with Heinz, plus baked potatoes from some freakishly large alternate universe and knife-stabbed slices of cake big enough for a sumo wrestler’s weigh-in. Plus pasta.
Why would I imagine anything else? Hugo Ralli and Steve Lombardo, the Gibsons brain trust, have practically been printing money at Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse on Rush Street since it opened in 1989. Same with their Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House and Quartino. All three rank among the highest-grossing independent restaurants in the United States, providing their well-heeled clientele large portions of familiar food with no frills.
Still, their restaurants have rubbed me the wrong way over the years. Each perpetuated that bygone, off-putting style where I felt like they kowtowed to the ballers while generally shrugging at people like me. They were clubs to which I could never belong—and the food wasn’t inspired enough to make me want to. But it’s been 12 years since the group’s last original opening, which is multiple lifetimes in restaurant years. I was curious to see if they’ve changed with the times at Gibsons Italia.
My awkward reception in the four-level space, which overlooks the west bank of the river downtown, seemed to portend a bad evening. An officious hostess waved us to the bar and commanded us to wait for a text regarding our table. I reluctantly admitted that the breezy bar area, with its tan leather chairs and a panoramic view of various bridges and skyscrapers, was a gorgeous place to cool our heels. A tingly Japanese highball made with Mars Iwai whiskey, cucumber soda, and lime did its best to keep me placated while our table was ostensibly being prepped. But the text never came.
After 30 minutes—and a minor stink at the hostess stand—we got sent upstairs to the lovely, but loud, dining room. Backlit onyx walls and sleek tables made a great first impression, and so did our waiter, a charming Argentine named Mauro, who immediately erased the sting of the long wait by sending out a couple of complimentary appetizers. The crisp acquarella arancini were filled with aged rice but haphazardly doused with thick tomato sugo. More understated were the creamy clouds of mozzarella di bufala with avocado and roasted teardrop tomatoes with a side of thick grilled Italian bread.
Chef José Sosa’s starters dutifully hit their steakhouse marks—Alaskan king crab, oysters, Caesar salad—and some of those obligations were very good. A finely chopped iceberg salad sprinkled with chives and parsley, littered with pancetta, and coated in punchy Gorgonzola dressing managed to breathe new life into an old warhorse.
The steaks are top-notch in the way I’ve always longed for the ones at the original Gibsons to be. The group’s signature Chicago cut, a 22-ounce bone-in rib eye that’s been wet-aged for 40 days, here gets taken off the bone, sliced into a dozen hunks, and served (literally) on a silver platter with rosemary and a roasted garlic bulb. Sea salt flakes melt into the lightly charred top, capping perfectly marbled beef oozing with fatty flavor. And it was no one-off fluke. A grass-fed 14-ounce Australian New York strip had the same perfect char encasing tender pink flesh. When my tablemate asked Mauro which of the menu’s five homemade “sauces”—which include black truffle butter and foie gras butter—he would pair with this steak, the waiter raised an eyebrow. “Why would you put a sauce on a steak?” he asked. These need nothing to improve them.
Sides, which include everything from flash-fried shishito peppers to a decadent potato purée described simply as “butter, butter, butter,” feel a bit scattershot. But a sweet, piercing acidity stokes a grilled Romanesco broccoli with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes and egg salsa. And while the wine list prices are predictably top-heavy, treasures like a lemon-zesty 2015 Do Ferreiro Albariño from Rías Baixas ($55) lurk among the brawny Nebbiolos and Cabs.
Desserts are far more down to earth. Various homemade cookies (mine were almond amaretto, lemon sugar, and Sicilian fig) on a three-tiered tower taste like something Nonna might bring to a wedding because she doesn’t trust the caterer.
But lest we forget, it’s the Italia part of the equation that’s important here. The menu makes a big deal out of saying the pasta is housemade, using a gold extruder and Italian heritage organic stone-ground Senatore Cappelli flour. We’re told it’s made fresh twice a day, and in case the messaging still isn’t clear, there’s a wall of pasta-making paraphernalia in the dining room just to drive the point home. So it’s shocking how uninspired the noodles turn out to be: oily spaghettini al pomodoro; gummy fusilli with pasty Neapolitan beef and onion sugo; gorgeous but gloppy casarecce (a sort of twisted almost-fusilli) with torn-up asparagus and blunt dabs of ricotta. All the fancy bona fides in the world won’t make these pastas good.
The rest of the Italian options are better, thankfully, especially the proteins. The restaurant’s crudo is every bit as respectable as, say, Nico Osteria’s hallowed stuff. Each cube of silky bigeye tuna, fanned out across thin cucumber slices, is topped with a crispy sunchoke chip, and the gentle, intricate flavors get a jolt from a thick green oyster crema. Sosa’s team shows an admirable attention to detail. The Dok Dall’Ava prosciutto, buttery-tasting sheets of air-cured hog thigh veined with fat, comes with cantaloupe that has been compressed for 24 hours with thyme and other herbs until its custardy sweetness is heightened and infused with a piney tone. (“You put too much prosciutto in my lunch,” my 11-year-old complained the next day, turning up his nose at the leftovers. Only a critic’s kid.)
Can an Italian restaurant with lackluster pastas still be worth recommending? In this case, the answer is yes. Despite a few blind spots—even big ones—Gibsons Italia represents a surprising step up for the restaurant group. While it isn’t exactly Schwa, the new spot is certainly more ambitious than its older brothers. And apart from the reservation snafu, I loved the calm confidence of the staff. Yes, it’s loud and crowded and expensive, but there is something ultimately endearing and encouraging about Gibsons Italia—signs of a serious restaurant beneath the gleaming exterior. Just skip the pasta.