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Promising menu: Gigi Italian Bistro features pastas, pizzas, excellent salad

“Between a rock and a hard place.”

Gigi’s namesake pizza is a meat lover’s delight, with pepperoni, ham, sausage, pork belly and crushed meatballs. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

That’s how a man at the neighboring table on the patio of Gigi Italian Bistro summed up our predicament on a recent Saturday night. The wind was gusting, threatening to tear the umbrellas from the tables just as the low evening sun was drawing a bead on us. Inside, conditions were even worse: The heat from the pizza oven had made the dining room stifling.

For a moment, I thought that maybe the temperature inside was intended as an homage to “Hell’s Kitchen,” the TV show in which Gigi’s owner Robert Hesse first showed up on the national radar. Hesse’s two seasons under the pitiless gaze of foulmouthed British chef Gordon Ramsay made him something of a celebrity himself. His rough-and-tumble background and ultimately successful battle with obesity struck a chord in many fans. Last year, he opened the small, casual Italian bistro in a strip mall on the east side of the Century Rio 24 cinema parking lot.

The restaurant was empty when my party arrived for dinner for what was, technically, my second visit. The first one, a month ago, ended with my tugging at a locked door and peering through the window into a darkened space that was, according to the website and sign on the door, supposed to be open. If Yelp is any indication, this has happened to others, so I’d advise you to take the posted hours with a grain of salt and call ahead before making plans.

The high-ceilinged space inside is colored in shades of brown and features a few thick wooden tables and lots of hanging lights. There was no one else there when we arrived except a cook and a server, who whisked us outside to the small patio.

The chopped caprese salad mixes mozzarella chunks and sliced cherry tomatoes into a bed of romaine lettuce. (Richard S. Dargan/For The Journal)

Hesse has crafted an interesting menu at Gigi made up mostly of pastas and pizzas. The excellent chopped caprese salad ($11.95) blows up the traditional stack of mozzarella and sliced tomatoes into a pile of romaine lettuce topped with shaved Parmesan and pickled red onions. Dressed with garlic vinaigrette and aged balsamic syrup, the salad is sweet, tart and, with the chunks of buffalo mozzarella, quite filling.

Less successful was the spaghetti with meatballs ($15.95), in an unremarkable marinara. Some of the pasta was stuck together in clumps. The large, almost impenetrable meatballs didn’t add much to the dish.

Gigi’s menu offers five “pizzettes,” or small pizzas, but they’re ample enough for two people to share. The namesake pizzette ($15.95) features fennel sausage, pepperoni, diced pork belly and honey ham. The Neapolitan-style crust is just about perfect, but the meatballs crumbled across the top are not integrated with the pizza; they tumble away when you lift a slice to your mouth.

With no coffee, beer or wine to choose from, I tried the blue raspberry Italian soda ($4.95), one of Gigi’s “handmade” varieties, and found it very sweet, with just a slight amount of fizz.

Gigi’s has a varied dessert selection, especially for such a small place, but again, the execution was lacking. Lemon cake with blueberry compote ($8.95) was lovely to look at, but the cake was a little dense and the lemon flavor was barely discernible.

By then, weary of wrangling the windblown umbrella and moving chairs to avoid the intense glare of the sinking sun, we followed our patio neighbors back through the empty restaurant to leave. Lo and behold, it had become comfortable inside. The server told me that they had turned on the air conditioning, just then, as the only two parties in the restaurant were leaving.

Were I Gordon Ramsay, I would have unleashed a stream of expletives, but my windblown, sun-scorched self could only shrug. Gigi has potential, but based on my experience, it’s sorely in need of oversight.