Meatball mecca

I love spaghetti and meatball joints. They remind me of places in the upper Midwest with names like Pasta Villa and John’s Italian.

Right across the street from Norman’s Borders bookstore, Gaberino’s is a welcome addition to the side of town where choices such as the homogenized likes of Red Lobster, On The Border and Olive Garden dominate. Gaberino’s follows the tradition of Italian-American restaurants that aren’t fancy-schmancy, but set a big, hearty plate of pasta with red sauce in front of you for a fair price. Nothing on the menu, including shrimp scampi, is more than 10 clams.

We arrived at Gaberino’s on a recent Friday evening, and the small dining room was filled nearly to capacity, but still had a vacant table for two. Server Ryan Welch went to work the instant we were seated. The decorative theme is rustic, with mason jar light fixtures dangling over each table. Traditional redand-white-checked cloths cover each table, and fresh lilies and linen napkins added an elegant touch. Framed black-and-white photos of the Colosseum, Italian farmers and a brown-eyed baby in a Christening gown line the walls.

Gaberino’s dining room is long and narrow, seating around 50. Music ranged from hip 1960s Motown to Frank Sinatra’s soothing vocals.

Laura and Mitch Duprez are Gaberino’s owner-operators. They met while working together at Victoria’s Pasta Shop in Norman six years ago. Gaberino is the maiden name of Laura’s mom, Patsy.

“We wanted to open our own restaurant, and it has gone really well so far,” Laura Duprez said. “We have a great staff, the majority of whom have been with us since day one.”

Gaberino’s dishes are made primarily from family recipes, and virtually everything is prepared in-house.

It was more than 100 degrees outside when we visited, and starting with salads was a given. On a cooler day, tomato-basil soup (cup $3, bowl $4) or stuffed mushrooms ($6) may have been a first choice. Spinach salad ($6) with fresh greens, red onions and toasted walnuts topped by feta cheese and balsamic vinaigrette arrived artfully arranged on the plate. It was fresh and flavorful, with a nice textural balance of crunchy nuts and onions complementing the delicate, sweet spinach.

Meatballs are the thumping heart of any home-style Italian-American table, and they’re at the top of Gaberino’s specialty list. Fettuccine and meatballs ($10)
came with a big slice of crusty bread. The meatballs are made of beef
and Italian sausage, smothered in marinara sauce, then topped with
grated Parmesan and fresh parsley. It’s a generous portion, and the meat
contains a mouthwatering wallop of fennel, oregano and garlic flavors.

Meatballs are the thumping heart of any home-style Italian-American table.

The lunch menu has a meatball sub ($6)
that must be among the best sandwiches in town. My companion chose
chicken lasagna Florentine ($10).

“That
recipe is my pride and joy,” Duprez said. “It took a few months for
that dish to evolve in my head, but the first batch was an immediate
hit.”

Four
cheeses are layered with lemon-pepper chicken breast and noodles then
slathered with red gravy. I was favored with exactly two bites, but it
was enough to taste that it’s a straight-up signature dish.

An
8-inch personal pizza ($4) has massive pesto and fresh mozzarella
flavor. This diminutive, 4-slice pie and glasses of wine would be the
perfect appetizer for two.

Matt
Sterr at Norman’s Spirit Shop collaborated on the beer and wine list.
Gaberino’s has Peroni and Moretti la Rossa brews. Among wine labels are
the superb Tormaresca Neprica and Pietrafitta do San Gimignano.

Italian
cream cake ($4) was our first dessert choice, but it was sold out. It
is baked on-site, and we just missed snagging that day’s last slice.
Settling for the decidedly lighter lemon sorbet ($2) with its subtle,
frosty citrus kiss was a good second choice. There are also three
flavors of cheesecake ($4).

After that meal, it was easy to see that home-style Italian- American cooking has arrived in a part of Norman that needs it.

Oklahoma
Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive
aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or
service when appropriate.

Doug Hill

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