Just like fine wine, Gamba Ristorante in Merrillville, Ind., keeps getting better with age. I am an unabashed devotée of Benito Gamba's Italian/Mediterranean restaurant and now with executive chef Mike Rueth at the helm of the kitchen (along with his sous chef Daryn Frank), I'm over the moon.
"We started to focus on seasonality and began sourcing ingredients from local farmers and farmer's markets, principles that are trendy in the United States, are profoundly European. As we evolved, we realized to stay true to ourselves and loyal to our long-term customers, we needed to maintain a balance between cutting-edge Neo-Italian and the old-school Classic Italian that is apparent in menu items like the Cabbage Involtini [ground beef, chicken, and pork, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, creamy Gorgonzola polenta, pomodoro sauce]," Rueth says.
"We also strongly believe that anybody should be able to afford to eat a great meal every once in awhile, and wanted to make ourselves more accessible to the masses. Thus, we began offering a selection of lower-priced entrées, tasting-size entrées, half-portion pastas, and a list of small plate appetizers that a group could come in and share and not end the night with sticker shock," Rueth says.
My latest experience at Gamba's proved that this combination is working very well. We started with Salsa Cruda ($4), artisan bread and housemade flatbread. We moved on to a Charcuterie Board ($15) that featured prosciutto, housemade salami and other cured meats, housemade giardiniera, Italian olives, and some of the best Italian and French cheeses I've had in a long time.
With kale's popularity continuing to rise, we tried the Kale Salad ($10) featuring roasted yellow beets, pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, currants, pecorino, candied spiced chickpeas in a white balsamic vinaigrette. The pop of flavor was surpassed only by the explosion of color on the plate. If that's not impressive enough, the kale is massaged to break down the fibers for a better mouth feel.
Rabbit Loin on parsnip purée with a blood-orange sauce was a delightful appetizer and new to the menu. Next up was the house favorite, Acorn Squash Bisque ($8). This bowl of liquid gold was given what I consider to be a necessary crunch for the palate with chopped apple, Nueske's bacon lardons and a bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup. The bisque on its own, along with Gamba's artisan bread, flatbread and Plugra butter, would make a satisfying meal for me.
A tasting portion of the Pappardelle (full portion is $20) with shredded beef tenderloin and Marzano tomato sugo was simply superior. Now that's how pasta should chew. We moved on to a tasting portion of the North Carolina Striped Black Bass with housemade pickled red onion, crispy cauliflower, pistachio emulsion and spinach risotto with a blood-orange oil garnish. I love fish when it's cooked properly and this was -- moist and succulent.
Next up was one of my favorites -- a tasting portion of the Veal Tenderloin ($18/$36) with celery root purée, gremolata, wild mushrooms and truffle oil. It didn't disappoint my flavor memory. My dinner partners had the tasting portion of the Filet Mignon ($20/$40) with potatoes Robuchon, broccoli gratinée and a Cognac demi-glace. The tasting portion of the Leg of Lamb ($17/$34) with espresso-roasted maple acorn squash, kale, green peppercorns and port was the least successful of the three dishes, but still a contender.
The housemade Panna Cotta was a large enough portion for three to share and it had none of that jiggly, gelatinous quality so unappealing in other desserts of its ilk.
In addition to all the amenities a fine-dining establishment offers, half-price appetizers are served in Gamba's lounge from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursdays, along with live entertainment from 7 to 9 p.m. Check the website for special wine-paired dinners and holiday menus. Gamba Ristorante was named one of the country's Most Romantic Restaurants by OpenTable diners.
Gamba Ristorante has evolved to pay homage not only to its Italian roots but to its loyal customers. Go! Mangia bene!
455 E. 84th Drive, Merrillville, IN 46410
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays
Dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays