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Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano restaurant review, Atlanta

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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.”Jenny-Turknett-Review

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.”

Sorrento Lemon Chicken (all photos by Becky Stein)

Sorrento Lemon Chicken (all photos by Becky Stein)

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.

Try the Scarpiello chicken, the inspiration for the popular San Genarro pizza at Antico.

Try the Scarpiello chicken, the inspiration for the popular San Genarro pizza at Antico.

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.

Al Forno pasta

Al Forno pasta

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
$Food: rustic Italian chicken and pasta
Service: counter ordering with table delivery
Best dishes: Scarpiello and Amalfi chicken
Vegetarian selections: pastas
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: opens 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon Saturdays-Sundays
Children: fine
Parking: yes
Reservations: accepted for the Maradona table and back room
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: no
Noise level: moderate to loud
Patio: no
Takeout: yes
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13 comments Add your comment

nsk

March 14th, 2013
8:31 am

Wow, 3 stars. I wouldn’t have expected that. I’m over Antico because the “experience” outweighs the food quality for me, but may have to try out this place.

The idea of a reserved parking space for the owner is distasteful and, coupled with the flashy car, comes off as obnoxious. I can’t think of another restaurant where, no matter how inconvenient the parking situation, has up-front reserved spots for management or staff.

jimmy

March 14th, 2013
9:46 am

@nsk – Have you read the Atlanta Magazine profile of the owner? The parking space decision becomes less surprising.

Edward

March 14th, 2013
10:25 am

You’d think at the prices charged, they could at least place softer and more absorbent paper towels on the tables. Even Farmburger manages that. ;-)

Native Atlantan

March 14th, 2013
11:36 am

Not a fan of the dining room experience, but the food at both restaurants is certainly worth rubbing elbows with your neighbors. Love it….the pizza and the chicken…..

Food Esq.

March 14th, 2013
1:28 pm

It’s amazing how some one can be living the american dream, providing jobs and postivity to the city and we still manage to find something NEGATIVE to say. The food is great and though I dont know the owner in order to have lines wrapped around the corner he’s doing something right!

Bob

March 14th, 2013
6:21 pm

Agree with “food esq”, that the negative comments are unfortunate. Why despise a restaurant that delivers quality food and a unique experience? Antico Pizza does not emulate chain comfort or ubiquitous “me too” appearances but instead offers awesome lively experience that one might find in Italy where social confines are less obtrusive. Savor the flavor of actually enjoying humanity and the gifts of “peasant” enterprise…even if they are successful. This is a great example of American spirit.

Michael

March 14th, 2013
7:36 pm

Well said Bob, shame people have to be hateful against an experience that breaks the paradigm of their coddled lifestyle. Especially considering Gio is creating something interesting out of what was once blight. -Former Homepark tenant

art

March 15th, 2013
8:23 am

Read the Atlanta Magazine article, “The Apostle of Pizza”. It provides a wealth of insight into Di Palma. Like him or not, you’ve got to admire what the man has created. Personally, I wish him nothing but the best. His pizza is outstanding!

Edward

March 15th, 2013
11:03 am

Heaven forbid any “job creator” be criticized for anything. I did not realize criticism was forbidden and that everything is just perfect and nothing would ever need to be changed or improved. What a feat!

Typical Redneck

March 15th, 2013
2:36 pm

The more I hear about this guy the less I am tempted to try his restaurants. I’ve had Antico and while very good, the atmosphere was not for me.

Paddy

March 16th, 2013
9:41 am

Not being able to take criticism is a now a national epidemic Edward. Don’t let it bother you. Never been there but to Food Esq, Michael & Bob it seems they think the place is perfect and needs no tweeking. Hate whinny people. How dare you comment on the paper towels. You should be keel hauled. LOL

[...] Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano restaurant review, Atlanta [...]

Sophie's Choice

March 18th, 2013
11:01 am

To those who insist upon criticizing this place without having actually eaten there first: If you find the owner’s personal peccadilloes so distasteful, then by all means, don’t patronize his restaurants. That’s your prerogative! But do stop whining about it in lieu of an actual critique, because those of us who care about the food really couldn’t care less whether you like the owner.