THE SCENE: Tucked away in one of Narberth’s modest row-home blocks, Gemelli resides in the house once occupied by Carmine’s and, most recently, Margot. This neighborhood bistro is less flamboyant than its predecessors, with warm colors on the walls, tailored window treatments, modest artwork, marble and wrought iron tables, a small, open kitchen, and a dark-wood interior.
The overall feel is more like dining at a friend’s home than at an upscale, suburban BYO. All the better to throw the spotlight on owner Clark Gilbert’s creative, rustic fare. And at Gemelli, there’s a real excitement that comes with watching this chef and his team.
THE FOOD: Gilbert earned his well-heeled rep at the Saloon and La Terrasse in Philly, Taquet in Wayne and, most recently, Mio Pomodoro in Jenkintown. Now that he’s back in his hometown, he’s setting aside his more sophisticated culinary past—and the ego that goes with—in an effort to offer customers an affordable, less-is-more menu. Instead of heaping ingredient upon ingredient, he opts for a minimalist approach with classic flavor combinations.
The menu isn’t overly ambitious, featuring homey renditions of the chef’s tried-and-true, Italian- and French-inspired repertoire. Gilbert is deft at balancing the business and the creative sides of running a restaurant. He gets deliveries from Severino Pasta in New Jersey, and desserts come from Le Petit Mitron in Narberth. He’s got the skills to make both—and occasionally he does—but Gilbert also knows that, to keep price points in line with what you’d expect from a neighborhood haunt, he has to be practical.
I’d experienced Gilbert’s tuna tartare when he was at Taquet, so I figured Gemelli’s updated Vitello Tonnato version would be a good place to start. Plus, we had a nice rosata flowing. Its sushi-grade tuna was precisely cut into melt-in-your-mouth chunks, layered atop saltier, equally tender braised veal cheeks. An interesting match, and neither’s delicate flavor was overwhelmed. A sizable mound of cubed roasted beets accented with a balsamic reduction, a wedge of Gorgonzola and marcona almonds added a sweet note as an accompanying appetizer.
Among the entrées we tried was a memorable squid ink cannelloni stuffed with shrimp and crab, and bound with a mousse-like shrimp farce. The seafood chunks delivered a satisfying snap, and the side of zucchini noodles was positively addicting—lightly seasoned with shallots, basil and parsley, and steamed in a tomato-fennel-chicken stock and butter broth.
Also excellent, the seared salmon was served with a wonderfully bold and creamy (thanks to a well-calculated hit of Parmigiano-Reggiano) ratatouille. The fish’s crisp crust played well against the interior’s soft, medium-rare flesh, complementing the cannelloni entrée—and our crisp rosata.
The evening’s real show-stopper was the appetizer special: rare seared scallops with a shaved fennel salad tossed with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive and lemon oils, and seasoned with shallots, chives and an orange-vanilla reduction. The lightly caramelized scallops were sliced horizontally and arranged atop the fennel, with a shallow pool of reduction nearby.
Scallops also made the entrée section of the menu, this time accompanied by a richly flavored risotto studded with wild mushrooms and peas, and an arugula pesto. The scallops were caramelized to perfection, their sticky exteriors giving way to sweet, pink insides. The al dente carnaroli rice (a larger grain popular in Italy for its ability to retain liquid and keep its shape) and abundant chunks of earthy mushrooms combined for an exceptional contrast of textures and flavors.
As a grand finale, we opted for the braised rabbit and papardelle—a generous tangle of shredded meat, sautéed spinach and Cerignola olives. The al dente pappardelle noodles were pleasingly supple, yet firm enough to stand up to the copious mix of braised rabbit, olives and spinach. Gilbert’s got this one nailed. Just bring the red.
THE EXPERIENCE: One thing that’s great about Gemelli is its complete absence of pretense. The chef’s an everyday guy, the servers are everyday people, and the creative food exudes comfort. It’s the quintessential neighborhood eatery. Come as you are, be as you are—and leave all the dirty dishes with them.
Though it was a full house on the nights we visited, service was seamless. The ambiance was at once mellow and lively, and though the space is cozy, it’s not at all cramped—and the conversations of others are rarely a distraction. More privacy can be had at certain tables, but, naturally, if you show up without a reservation, any seat will have to do.
Parking isn’t ideal, but it can be had. Even so, having to drive around the block a few times is well worth the reward of leaving with a full belly.
THE SKINNY: For the moment, Gemelli is more of a neighborhood spot than any sort of destination for discerning diners arriving from other areas. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, as word spreads about the quality and integrity of the food at this understated gem, people will begin traveling from farther distances.
Gemelli is a small restaurant with a small menu, but Gilbert is savvy enough to mix in enough specials to keep the regulars happy. And he’s not some young buck in the kitchen trying to dazzle the critics anymore.
That said, Gilbert still aims to dazzle his customers. The father of twins (hence the Gemelli moniker), he’s simply trying to make a living doing what he loves most these days. And given all the showy spaces, fussy plates and pricey checks in his past, Gemelli’s homestyle-with-a-twist formula is well timed. Even better, it’s 100 percent food-forward.
Location: 232 S. Woodbine Ave., Narberth, (610) 660-0160, gemellinarberth.com
Cuisine: Homestyle Italian bistro fare with a French twist.
Cost: Entrées $14-$27. Cash only.
Atmosphere: Relaxed neighborhood bistro with a domestic feel.
Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Extras: Outdoor seating for 20 in spring and summer; free limoncello available as an end-of-meal cordial.