Every year, new Italian restaurants spring up like mushrooms in Rhode Island’s welcoming soil. The trick is being able to tell the portabellas from the amanitas. Guytanno’s Café is yet another pleasant discovery.
Guy Gengarella established it in Westerly late in 2004. He is a Johnson & Wales culinary grad who worked at various restaurants for a couple of decades, and had always wanted to open a place in his hometown. The Gengarella family name is so common in that part of the state that, odds are, the restaurant could have survived on relatives alone. Fortunately, word got out, so Guytanno’s local reputation seems assured.
The place is as neat as a pin, as sleek as the wine bottles incorporated into the décor. A sprawling central bar dominates the space, but the tasteful mahogany tables and chairs in surrounding areas suggest that food is not an afterthought. The wine theme extends to the trellis latticework covering the ceiling and a wine list standing proudly on each table. It’s not an ambitious catalog, with a dozen offerings by the glass, in addition to Mondavi house wines and 20 modestly priced bottles with familiar labels, from Oregon to Italy. But most tastes can be satisfied.
There is good news and bad news about the menu, both related to the same thing: few items. Some might not appreciate a limited list, but I tend to trust a small kitchen that admits its capacity and assures freshness by limiting offerings. Those endless menus worry me. Supplemented by specials, the regular menu has only four appetizers ($8-$10) — besides calamari, there are crab cakes, shrimp cocktail, and an unfamiliar item, frazene — a kind of bruschetta on thin slices of bread. Three dinner salads and two soups fill out the starters.
A small portion of eggplant-filled ravioli was an appetizer special, but the broiled mussels ($12.95/$24.95) appealed to us even more. The decision worked out even better in reality than in imagination. Our half-order of nearly 20 mussels in the half shell and their buttery crumb topping were like a more delicate clams casino. We polished them off easily.
I couldn’t pass up their baked three-onion soup ($4.50). Preparations of this traditional French concoction are often disappointing, so I don’t often order it. I was glad I did this time, because each of the three elements that can go wrong went right. The stock was beefy, but not too salty; the sherry was added discretely enough to fill out the flavor without overwhelming it; and the proper cheese topping, Gruyere, was nicely browned.
The good beginning en¬couraged hope for matching main courses. We could choose from eight entrées and a half-dozen pastas, plus two or three specials. Besides two steaks, the only non-seafood among the entrées was the Statler chicken breast du jour ($17.95), which Johnnie chose. The day’s variation was moist and tasty, topped with melted mozzarella and over a cold orzo salad with a faint but tantalizing balsamic tang. Equally compelling were the skin-on mashed potatoes — my guess was that sour cream-butter combo was what was making me go back for more. The string beans were fresh and crisp.