The streetscape in the centre of Kingston is a mix of old homes and small businesses. It has recently welcomed a pert new neighbor as Gennaro’s Italian Market has expanded to create a full-service restaurant. Owner Gennaro Costabile purchased the jewel-box house next to the market (most recently a lawyer’s office) and now offers fine dining in a blissfully quiet atmosphere.
A popular restaurateur in the Princeton area since 1999 when he opened La Terrazza (later Gennaro’s Restaurant) on State Road, Gennaro has steadily moved forward in enlarging his imprint on the food scene. He added catering to his business and in 2014 opened Gennaro’s Italian Market & Catering at the current location at 4587 Route 27 in Kingston. When the home next door became available it was the next most logical move to transform the quaint, Victorian-era house into a cafe. After all, the kitchen was right next door.
The design connecting the two buildings in the back does not disturb the look and feel of the neighborhood. In expanding the parking behind the buildings care was clearly taken not to make the area look commercial. It took 18 months to get all the approvals from the municipality, Middlesex County, the state, and the historical society. Clearly thoughtful planning is behind the expansion.
Dinner is limited to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Given the intimate seating, reservations are highly recommended. My friend and I arrived at 7 on a Friday and nearly all the tables were filled. We were seated immediately and Gennaro greeted us shortly after we sat down. An ice bucket appeared with champagne flutes (the restaurant is BYOB) and dinner was off to a rousing start. We never felt rushed.
The house retains its residential feel. The decor is soft greys, and the wooden tables are comfortably placed. The charm of the cafe is in its limited seating and its specialized menu. The walls are decorated with black-and-white vintage photos of scenes of Naples (c. 1800s and early 1900s).
The chef Benjamin Brault can be seen on the floor along with Gennaro, helping to serve and bring personal service to diners. My friend and I had the chance to chat with Gennaro (you immediately feel so at home you just use his first name instinctively) at various points during our visit. He means it when he says you are his guest. His goal is making and keeping devoted diners; a goal that cannot help but be met given our warm reception. The staff is friendly and efficient. My only wish was that they would slow down a bit when describing the specials. The deliciousness is in the details, and I wanted to catch every nuance of the dishes.
The menu is small, always a sign of thoughtful preparation and creative dishes. There are signature pasta dishes ($22) as well as a variety of meat or fish entrees ($25 to $36) but Gennaro made a point of saying that he encourages customers to ask for a favorite dish even if it’s not on the printed menu. The variety is cause for repeat visits.
We ordered the signature appetizer, Greens Gennaro, simply because I had heard about it and it more than lives up to its reputation. It is warm, perfectly sauteed escarole combined with chopped hot cherry peppers and prosciutto, with seasoned breadcrumbs and sprinkling of house-blended cheeses. At $13, it is large enough to share as a small starter each. And the bread, ah, the bread, served hot — genuinely hot so that the butter soaks in. Other starters and salads are $12 to $15.
For entrees my friend had the pork ossobuco ($32) which was rich, savory, and fell completely off the bone. I had the seared tuna ($36) served with a melange of seasoned vegetables. We watched as other diners were served and everything came out perfectly plated and very tempting.
Lest we forget, dessert was equally delightful. We shared the Dolce Italiano, which had small portions of several sweets, just enough for a bite or two each. Not too little, not too much ($12).
We were tempted by the Insalata Contadina with field greens, ricotta salata, dried cranberries, roasted corn, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, and sherry vinaigrette as well as the Angus beef short ribs braised with wild mushroom and tomato ragout. But we had to leave something for next time.
The Scallops Arrosto (served with creamy arborio risotto, portobello mushrooms, and spinach, $36) and the Branzino Corfu (with grape tomatoes, capers, lemon, and vegetable risotto, $36) display the chef’s fine touch with seafood. We overtly coveted the breaded veal chop as it went by, beautifully plated with fresh salad crowning the meat. The dining area is small enough to allow amiable cross-table chats and the fellow whose chop it was said it was better than anything he has had in Manhattan.
Catering to clients’ dietary needs and tastes is no trouble. Vegetarian and vegan dishes are a natural part of Gennaro’s repertoire given his Neapolitan heritage. Fresh vegetables are front and center in so many dishes.
Currently Casa Gennaro offers seating for 35 but plans are in the works for outdoor seating for 20 by summer. The restaurant is available for private parties. The evening we were there a group of eight was comfortably seated in an alcove area. The front room, which retains the comfortable feel of the home’s original parlor, would be perfect for a small dinner party.
Do not expect the usual spaghetti and meatballs at Casa Gennaro — unless that is exactly what you want. When we complimented him on the creative menu, Gennaro smiled and said that he considers his dishes “dining with an attitude.”
This is a perfect date night venue and because it is intimate and quiet, it is definitely a place to come with good friends for good conversation. Older children who are beginning to appreciate well-prepared food would find many items on the menu. We are definitely returning; that veal chop is calling my name.
Casa Gennaro, 4585 Route 27 Kingston. Dinner Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. 609-683-1212.