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Cafe Gia & the the meeting of the 'hounds (Balto)

Italian food is never high on my list. Actually, it’s never on my list at all. If people ask what I’m in the mood for, it’s never Italian. No particular reason, it’s just Italian food never really thrilled me. It’s a different strokes for different folks, variety is the spice of life, to each her/his own type of thing, whatever.

So, it was a bit odd, to say that least, that I was even interested in, let alone found my way, to Café Gia in Little Italy, a place recommended by kimmer1850 on the New Baltimore Routine thread.

Anyway, I find a spot right outside this cute little place on Eastern Avenue at the corner of High Street. It’s cute inside, too. I mean, cute with a capital “C.” It verges on too cute, but manages, somehow to just feel comfortably instead of overwhelming, well, cute.

There were a few tables of people—blue-collar workers and business people—eating in the downstairs dining room, and definitely a party upstairs. I waited for a few seconds and was invited to come and sit at the counter. (I adore lunch counters, btw, so much warmer than eating at the bar!)

It didn’t take long to realize a few things. One, this is a real-live Baltimore place. The kind of place where one immediately feels comfortable, in fact, it doesn’t take long to feel like “family.” (The ‘mother,’ who was working behind the counter, kisses her fingers and touches your hand. And, it’s not forced, just warm and friendly.) And, two, it’s the kind of unpretentious yet non-divey type of place that I always wish there were more of.

So, I get the one page menu, check it out a bit, and say, I’ve heard that the eggplant parm is very good. The woman also eating at the counter chimes in to say its great. (Talking to fellow diners is one of the reasons that eating at the counter is so wonderful.) A short conversation ensues, and who should this fellow counter diner be? None other than fellow ‘hound, kimmer1850! We went through a few rounds of ‘this is TOO funny’ and settled down to talk food.

Anyway, on to the sandwich: It’s on good Italian bread, with eggplant that’s very thinly sliced and lightly breaded and lightly fried, piled on like so much deli meat. The cheese is minimal, and the sauce is also minimal, and tastes, well, just sort of sunny. (I guess that if I actually knew about Italian food, I’d have a name for this particular kind of tomato sauce.) At some point, I marveled at how beautiful the sandwich looked, with those lovely layers of thin eggplant slices with a bit of red from the sauce. It’s served with a teeny tiny house salad.

This sandwich tastes so unfamiliar that it takes a few bites to warm up to it. What’s so very odd is that its eggplant parm but is really light, no drowning in cheese and sauce and think fried slices. In fact, I had planned to eat only half the sandwich and bring the other half home, but something about it had me slivering my pre-doggie bag half, until about two bites were left to bring home. I’m looking forward to heating this up, and having another go at it. Very interesting, indeed. And, this culinary treat came for the grand price of $7.95.

And, thanks again to kimmer1850 for the rec! Again, I hope you can join us on our Charm City chow yahoo group. And, despite never being in the mood for Italian, I will definitely be back to try out more. I have my eye on the Italian sausage sub.

Now some more details:

Although Kimmer1850 mentioned the hours in the other thread, I’ll also try to recount them here. Café Gia is open Monday through Saturday for lunch, and Thur-Sat for dinner. Saturday they are also open for breakfast.

The ‘mother’ told me to tell people that the best time to check out the place (or ‘get the full experience’ in her words, which I guess means being able to chat with the wonderful folks who work there) would be after about 1 pm during the week, with the best night for dinner definitely being Thursday.

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  1. I have been wanting to check out this place, what other things did they have on the menu? Do they sell wine?

    1 Reply
    1. re: hon

      It's a BYO place.

      I was just paying attention to the sandwiches. In addition to eggplant parm, and the Italian sausage, they also had some sort of Italian pulled pork thing, IIRC. Also, soup/s and salads. I really didn't look too closely at the entrees, but they do have things with pasta. But, I'm bet kimmer1850 can fill you in.

    2. Thanks for the report and the hours! That explains my difficulty: I had stopped by for breakfast one Thursday, dinner on a Monday, and lunch on Sunday. No lie. Do I have bad timing, or what??

      2 Replies
      1. re: charmedgirl

        I have had dinner there a few times. One time bracciole and another time linguini with scallops and shrimp. Grilled ceasar salad was good. As I mentioned in a different thread I enjoyed the ambience. Gia's mom is very friendly and the chef is quite enthusiastic. Mom says a Russian friend originally from St Petersburg is responsible for the artwork. SInce my wife and I frequently split an entree and an appetizer for dinner I can't really complain about there $7.50 corkage fee. I haven't tried lunch yet. The egglant parmesan sounds good.

        1. re: charmedgirl

          Well, now you know, so you can go. They have been extending their hours in stages, so not to bite off more than they can chew. ;-)

          And, an update on the doggie-bagged portion. I heated it up in the toaster over for Mr. Baltoellen who exclaimed: I don't even like eggplant, but this is amazing! (And, for some reason, it was missing the cheese and the sauce!)

        2. Just an FYI... the 'mother' really is the mom (also named Gia). It truly is family owned, originally from Sicily. The place is wonderful, and really does have a cozy atmosphere. Wish I worked downtown so I could get there for lunch more often.

          1. Hey All!!! (And especially Baltoellen)
            The menu is simnple and well thought out. I, too, have tried the braciole and fouind it rich and filling. I will admit that it was somewhat salty but then I don't use much salt. I also really enjoyed the Italian sausage sub with peppers and onions. Spicy and with just the right amount of sauce. If you go for Saturday breakfast (or even Friday ) ask what the special french toast is...trust me you're bound to like it!

            I gotta say that I am tickled pink to finally meet a fellow CH'er and put a face to a name! Here's to meeting more of you.

            1. Based on Ellen's rec I went there for lunch today. I had the Italian sausage sandwich. It was fairly spicy, minimal sauce with thin sliced peppers and onions -- just enough so as not to overwhelm it. Loved the salad of field greens and tomato with a very good house vinagrette.

              I also ate at the counter but unfortunately there wasn't anyone else to talk to except one guy yakking on his cell phone the entire time. That's ok -- my mouth was full.

              I also agree with Ellen about the ambience. It toes the line of too precious, but barely manages to avoid it. Sadly, mom wasn't behind the counter today.

              Good place, yummy sandwich. Recommended.

              1. A second visit update:

                I went today with Mr Baltoellen and a friend for lunch. (I am still digesting.) We were the only ones there for a while, so had ample time to chit chat with the lovely Gia (the daughter and owner). Anyway, we ordered the eggplant parm sandwich again, the shredded beef (which I was told I mis-wrote as "Italian pulled pork thingy," and a meatball sub sans bread. (Shades of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, but something easily accomplished.)

                The eggplant parm continued to be excellent. The shredded beef was amazing. We're talking tender beef delicately spiced and warm on good bread. Hearty and heavenly. Mr. Baltoellen proclaimed our friend's breadless meatballs as the best he's ever eaten.

                We started with the bean and mac soup, which was lovely and hearty, but subtle, and I could see as the perfect lunch with a salad.

                The place hasn't lost any of its warm, friendly, local ambiance. In fact, Gia's mother came in later and greeted us, and then gave us a tour of the tremendously cute (but not too to cute) upstairs.

                I also understand that I missed kimmer1850 by about a day! Too bad.....but, we'll have to make sure we meet up there next time!

                (And, as an aside, Mr Baltoellen, like me, isn't a big Italian food fan, but did proclaim, wow! if the lunch is this good, can you imagine dinner?)

                Yes, this place is definitely a keeper We'll be back again soon!

                1. My first post to this chowhound website (after reading the reviews of others for a long time - so bear with me if I don't get this completely right!). 4 of use went to Cafe Gia yesterday based on reviews in this thread, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I had the Mediterranean sandwich (chicken, fried eggplant, goat cheese) which was excellent, my wife had the pasta with proscuitto and onions and vodka sauce (special of the day - very filling), and our friends had the meatball sub (excellent, and we had to take half home with us) and the ravioli (least favorite of everything that we ordered, but still good). We also had bruschetta, which was some of the best I've had anywhere, made freshly with capers and beautiful olives in addition to the usual tomatoes and onions. The only complaint about the bruschetta is that it comes as 3 pieces, which never seems to work out well for 4 people (or even 2). They should make it 4 pieces. Although we were stuffed, we decided to get one piece of Tiramisu to share between the 4 of us, and we found it excellent - different from most of the other versions that we've tried (many of which I don't care for; too much coffee, or dry ladyfingers), and I'd order this one again. We also noted that the shrimp pasta that was served to a diner at a nearby table looked very tasty.

                  Side note - be sure to check out the bathroom decor, even if you don't need to visit the bathroom - unusual to say the least.

                  And Saturday lunch was not busy for this small place, so we had a chance to talk with the very attentive Gia. We'll be back, next time for dinner.

                  1. Been lookinf for an opportunity to try this place and today after an appt. I found myself on the eastside around 11:30 and thought I would try lunch. So glad I did...the room is warm, friendly and inviting. I was greeted by a lovely young lady(one of the Gias I assume) was seated and advised of a few daily specials, one of which was a linguine
                    with calamari sauce, which I promptly opted for.
                    The calamari was small, tender and delicious. It was one of those dishes where I searched for all the calamari before I began on the linguine.The sauce was delicate and had many nice slices of garlic, a marinara almost.
                    Not a lot of customers, but this is definetly gonna be a "word of mouth" success.
                    First chance after Restaurant Week the wife, and I will have a dinner there for sure!!

                    1. We had a perfectly awful experience at Cafe Gia a few weeks ago. I barely recognize the place in these reviews. Yes, the decor is cute. But the service is nothing short of appalling. Upon being seated for dinner, my friend mentioned she is diabetic and asked if bread could be put on the table. It must have been an awful imposition, because we were allotted three (count 'em) slices of bread exactly 45 minutes later. Yes, I checked my watch. Same with the cream for her coffee, which she had to ask for twice. After ten minutes with an empty water glass, I finally had to ask the young man with the pitcher to please fill it. I like scallops cooked rare, but these were undercooked even by my standards. Not so the veal, which was on the tough side. Even so, the sauce was good, so I asked for half my dinner to be wrapped to take home. Within moments of standing up to leave, someone had cleared the table. By the time I turned to pick up the package of leftovers, it was gone. And couldn't be found.

                      I want those two hours of my life back. And the rest of my dinner.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Lettuce Eat

                        You may want to search this board for other posts about Cafe Gia. There are some in other threads that echo yours regarding terrible service, although nothing that approached the awful treatment you received. I had only been back once, soon after this original post, and after reading what I've read from you and others, I definitely will not be going back.

                        1. re: baltoellen

                          I'm sorry to hear about so many bad experiences recently. My experiences have always been very good, but I always tend to be there for lunch. This whole 'having better experiences when I go on off-times compared to others' seems to happen for me with other places as well (Blue Moon comes to mind). Because I live in the county, I rarely find myself eating out for dinner. So I cook at home for dinners and eat out for lunches. Maybe it's because it's less crowded, or for whatever reason, but I always have a good time.