After weaving through the narrow and always-full parking lot of Gio’s, searching in vain for a space, I abandoned the hunt. Exiting the parking area, I encountered a car waiting patiently to enter.
Trying to be helpful, I gave the driver a little wave and shake of the head to indicate that there were no available spaces. The gleaming black G-Class Mercedes SUV didn’t budge, waiting for us to pass. “Suit yourself,” I thought.
After finding alternate parking, I headed to the entrance and encountered the Mercedes, snuggled in an alcove between Gio’s and its sister restaurant, Antico Pizza Napoletana. Then I saw the sign: “NO parking. This spot reserved for GIOVANNI DI PALMA.”
Ah, yes. Giovanni Di Palma, owner of the famed Antico Pizza and newly opened Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano. King of the neighborhood.
That’s what Di Palma is creating — a neighborhood. He moves between buildings, slipping through the side doors, to keep tabs on both his pizza and chicken domains. He says he keeps everything in close proximity because he wouldn’t have time to check on a restaurant in, say, Alpharetta. (Sorry, Alpharetta.)
Di Palma’s version of Little Italy soon will include a piazza with a limoncello bar, a gelateria and an Italian market with pastries, coffee and imported products.
Gio’s, the most recent addition to the neighborhood, is something of a bare-bones operation, much like Antico Pizza. After ordering at the counter, you sit at bingo tables lined with checkered plastic cloths and flash your hand-numbered receipt to servers passing food.
Quart soup containers hold flatware and plastic-handled knives in the colors of the Italian flag. And, just like at Antico, you’ll have to tear jagged bits of paper from nonperforated (and nonabsorbing) brown towel rolls much like those at restroom handwash stations. The whitewashed brick walls sport pale wood accents and oversized Italian product logos.
I try to snag a seat at the Maradona table, the original wooden prep table from Antico Pizza. Or, I might grab one of the two high top tables butted against windows looking into the kitchen and watch as Di Palma dissects a dish with the rest of the staff, leaning in for pointers.
The inspiration for Gio’s arose from Di Palma’s cravings for the lemon chicken of his homeland. While Southern Italy and the Amalfi coast are better known for seafood, Di Palma said that when they had chicken, it was the chicken now served at Gio’s.
“I’m not a chef,” Di Palma confessed. “I’m a peasant cook. I can make 12 things extremely well. One is pizza and the others are on the menu at Gio’s. Hey, I got two restaurants out of it.”
But don’t let Di Palma fool you. While the chicken at Gio’s is simple, the flavors are anything but. These rustic Italian dishes translate into some of the most brilliant comfort foods.
Using a handful of ingredients, many imported from Italy, Di Palma has created a menu of seven chicken and four pasta dishes. Every Sunday a plane flies into Atlanta carrying 500 to 600 cases of cheeses straight from Naples for Di Palma’s restaurants. Dried elicoidali (tube) pasta comes from Gragnano, the “city of pasta.” And, of course, there are the San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes.
Gio’s uses Bell & Evans air-chilled chickens from Pennsylvania Dutch country, carefully selected by Di Palma. Brushed with oil, the chickens rest in a rub of sea salt, wild oregano, garlic and pepper before being slow-roasted in the oven.
Large pieces of bone-in chicken come in brothy bowls with roasted potato wedges and squares of focaccia much like Antico’s pizza dough. It’s all about the broth. The chicken itself is moist and tender, but the magic is in the pools of liquid swirling with ribbons of oil that have been uniquely flavored by the dish.
Di Palma said the best investment he ever made was the 40-gallon soup pot he purchased to make fresh chicken stock each day. The stock, along with Romano cheese, forms the basis for the flavorful broth.
You’ll want to sample the Sorrento lemon chicken ($15), the restaurant’s inspiration. Amalfi-style lemon slices, generous garlic, wild oregano and hearty olive oil flavor this chicken. The Arancia di Capri ($17) takes the chicken on a floral detour, with orange slices and rosemary scenting the chicken and broth. If you appreciate heat, try the Diavola ($16), made with calabrian peperoncini and spicy oil.
While these dishes warm my soul, my favorites include the Scarpiello ($17) and the Amalfi ($16). Scarpiello chicken inspired the popular San Gennaro pizza at Antico. Di Palma calls it the “quintessential Italian pork, vinegar and peppers dish.” Thick pieces of Chicago-sourced sausage mix with charred sweet and spicy peppers and slices of cipolline onions to top the chicken. A splash of aceto rosso (red wine vinegar) mixes with the heavenly broth, adding an extra dimension.
It’s the Amalfi that Di Palma calls the “sleeper dish,” predicting it will become a favorite. This concoction features brilliant green and meaty castelvetrano olives complemented by Italian bread crumbs, garlic and cipolline onions.
The portions here are generous, but order your own chicken because you’ll most certainly crave the leftovers the following day.
Share one of the pasta dishes. The Al Forno pasta ($13) is easy to love, recalling the flavors of lasagna with marinara, chunky San Marzano tomatoes and a thick layer of bubbled scamorza cheese. According to Di Palma, the Sorrento pasta ($14) will put you in mind of eating on an Italian terrace. The Gragnano elicoidali pasta, with its hallmark chew, comes studded with roasted Vesuvian cherry tomatoes, milky bufala mozzarella, garlic and basil.
You won’t leave hungry. That’s Di Palma’s commitment and why the portions are large. He’s added a simple salad to accompany meals. The seasoned mixed greens and shaved cheese are tossed with his mother’s dressing of oil, lemon and vinegar.
When Gio’s opened back in December, the original menu specified “no splitting,” which caused some rumblings due to the large portions and $15 entree prices. This notation since has been removed from the menu. Di Palma only asks that if you share, don’t portion it out onto separate plates. Instead, pass the bowl to preserve the integrity of the dish — the chicken mixed with its juices and luscious broth.
To top the meal off, Gio’s, like Antico Pizza, offers desserts in a case at the counter. You’ll find the same thick cannolis with smooth pistachio filling ($3.50) or cups of classic tiramisu ($6).
Order both desserts and adult beverages up front so you don’t have to brave the line twice. Gio’s offers a few options like splits of prosecco, Bolla chianti, Bella Sera pinot grigio and Peroni. The alternative is to bring your own, which Gio’s permits.
Di Palma said he’s reliving the excitement and success of Antico Pizza during these early days at Gio’s. But he isn’t taking it for granted. He continues to tweak the restaurant and has plans to convert the back room into a bar and waiting area for the growing takeout business as customers discover the family-sized takeout-only portions ($33-$43 to feed four to five).
If Di Palma is known for anything, it’s big plans — which Atlanta has embraced wholeheartedly. Di Palma knows it, admitting, “For me, it’s a fantasy. I’m living the dream.”
And so are we.GIO’S CHICKEN AMALFITANO 1099 Hemphill Ave. N.W., Atlanta. 404-347-3874