By The Taste Buds
We all love the taste of homemade food – freshly cut and roasted vegetables, piping hot bread, and meats seared, roasted, baked or grilled to our preference. The scent of spices permeates the whole house, and when you sit down to eat, you know that a fantastic, personal meal was made especially for you. The fulfillment reaches far beyond the empty plate, and it can brighten your day, any day. The type of satisfaction related to home cooking isn’t something you get at a restaurant ... unless that restaurant is Gabriella’s Italian Grill & Pizzeria.
The success of Gabriella’s began on Mother’s Day, 1950, when Dominic Anthony Giacomo opened his family restaurant – Isle of Capri – in Krebs, Oklahoma, where memories were made and excellent recipes were concocted. Everyone in the family learned and improved upon the old family recipes, including Anthony’s niece, Vicki. She mainly waitressed as a teenager, but her passion resided in the many recipes that she and her family developed over the years.
Eventually, Vicki married Duane Muhs and started a family of her own; they moved to South Padre, Texas, where Vicki’s experiences and memories at Isle of Capri lived on. In 2003, Vicki and Duane opened their own restaurant in South Padre, naming it after their daughter, Ashton Gabriella Muhs. Gabriella’s performed well, but they missed Oklahoma, so in 2009 they returned.
“We enjoyed South Padre and we have a lot of great friends there,” Vicki commented, “but we also missed Oklahoma, so we came back.”
With Gabriella’s in South Padre still open, Duane and Vicki launched their newest Gabriella’s restaurant this past summer. Their location – formerly County Line BBQ – sits atop a hill, with a gorgeous view of downtown Oklahoma City. As we stepped inside, the familiar aromas of fresh bread and Italian cheeses greeted us. The main lobby consists of a central family seating area, with small semi-private rooms along both sides, and a fresh deli counter for take-home snacks. Frank Sinatra and “Rat Pack” memorabilia decorate the slatted wooden walls, and a classy ’50s playlist quietly plays in the background. The low lighting combined with the faded red and honeyed woodwork nurture a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.
Duane escorted us to the back room, with its panoramic view of I-44 with the distant downtown Oklahoma City skyline in the background. The kitchen area and pizza oven are also open to the back room, so you can witness the 700-degree oak-fired brick oven roasting pizzas to perfection. We eagerly watched the seasoning, searing, frying, stirring, living kitchen of Gabriella’s, while at the same time enjoyed an equally exciting view of the city.
The first thing we noticed was that everyone in the kitchen was happy. While we waited for our food, we watched Ashton (Gabriella) sliding pizzas into and out of the pizza oven. Vicki was handling the stovetop, while their son Michael (Miguel) was casing and preparing sausages and helping with the pasta. Their nephew, Anthony, was manning the grill, while Duane entertained the guests and occasionally dropped into the kitchen to help out. Although they were focused and professional, they openly enjoyed each other’s company, and schmoozed with nearby diners. Even the menu has a clear sense of humor:
“Don’t like garlic? Chef Vicky does! Please advise server.”
–Dinner menu at Gabriella’s
Nonetheless, we directed our focus back to the menu. First, we strolled through the appetizers before deciding on Miguel’s Italian Sausage and Peppers. The sausage was served with a cup of fresh marinara, which immensely complemented the bold, spicy taste of the house-made pork sausage. Vicki noted that Michael enjoys an occasional beer, which he strongly recommends as the perfect pairing for this hearty appetizer. If you also enjoy a brew from time to time, consider sampling one of the 29 on tap at Gabriella’s.
Other tasty appetizers include the Zucchini Fritte (breaded and served with a lemon aioli), Bruschetta, Italian Nachos, Zuppli (Parmesan risotto balls stuffed with their Italian sausage and Mozzarella), and the ever-popular Lamb Fries. One of Vicki’s favorites is the Toasted Ravioli – hearty pockets of fresh meat arrive steaming and golden brown, drizzled with garlic butter and garnished with fresh Parmesan.
All dinners begin with a family-style bowl of salad dressed with a light vinaigrette, and a basket of fresh garlic bread. Sandwiches and calzones (incidentally, these are the size of a pizza folded in half) arrive with a helping of French fries drizzled with earthy truffle oil and sprinkled with herbs and Parmesan.
Next we sampled the Roma Pizza – the fresh, chewy dough is topped with red peppers, smoked Gouda and Mozzarella, freshly made Italian sausage and red pepper cream sauce. Each ingredient separately stood out during every bite: the Italian sausage cut in with a strong, hearty kick; the red peppers and cream sauce warmly transitioned into the smoked cheese, leaving a peppery, creamy aftertaste. Ashton prepares and roasts the pizzas, and if you have never tried a brick-oven pizza before, make it a priority. If the Roma Pizza isn’t your style, other tasty choices include the zesty Sicilian Pizza, Nonna Rose’s White Pie (highlighted by spinach, ricotta and pancetta), Rat Pack Pie, Leonardo d’Veggie or the hearty Soprano Pizza. Or you could try your hand at building your own.
But we’re also pasta fans, so we next dove into the Spaghetti Festival. It consists of spaghetti sautéed in olive oil with Roma tomatoes, caramelized onions, sweet bell peppers, black olives and garlic, then topped with chicken, pepperoni and home-made Italian sausage. Instead of smothering this work of genius in sauce, it is lightly drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with herbs. Each bite brought together the many ingredients of this dish in a burst of flavor that satisfied our every taste bud.
Other menu highlights include the Shrimp fra Diava, Lasagna, Roasted Garlic Tortellini, Italian Meatloaf, Cioppino Stew, and a selection of steaks and seafood. Here’s a secret: Chef Vicki will make Eggplant Parmesan even though it’s not on the menu, and it’s highly recommended! With so many freshly made choices, you will have to keep returning to try them all.
We of course had to save room for dessert once we found out they are made fresh daily by Vicki. The Cannoli are crisp, with a creamy ricotta filling hinting of almond. The Italian Banana Split is a sinful concoction that starts with a roasted banana, split and topped with Spumoni, then garnished with whipped cream, crushed cannoli bits and a chocolate drizzle. Aah, Tiramisu – tender ladyfingers soaked in two different liquors (Vicki wouldn’t reveal her secret mixture), layered with mascarpone cheese, then garnished with Grand Marnier-infused whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder. We heard they have a rich chocolate cake, which we’ll have to sample next time.
We waddled out of Gabriella’s Italian Grill & Pizzeria replete with the scents, flavors and memories of our excellent meal, content with our adventure and the great company, and already planning our return visit.