At Gallo's Kitchen & Bar, it's Mardi Gras all year long in Upper Arlington.
Few remember that by the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans' famous French Quarter could rightly have been called the Italian Quarter. By 1900, large numbers of immigrants (mostly from Sicily) had come and established businesses, including grocery stores and restaurants. In time, their cooking began to mingle with that great culinary stew we call Creole—itself a mix of African, French and Spanish cooking. Thus, we get dishes like fusilli with crawfish tails in a spicy cream sauce, the muffuletta sandwich with cured Italian meats (first created at the city's famous Central Grocery by a Sicilian immigrant) or marinara that is spicier and sweeter than one might find even in Sicily. Today, New Orleans has many of these Italian/Creole places—and, lucky us—Columbus has Gallo's Kitchen & Bar.
Gallo's does this cooking full-bore, starting with a delicious version of the famous muffuletta ($10). It is thick with salami, capicola, the fatty Italian bologna called mortadella and provolone cheese topped with an oily and delicious olive salad. The mixture soaks into the soft white bread, making it all come together. The aforementioned fusilli ($12.50) is a full plate of pasta swimming in a buttery, creamy sauce, orange-red with crawfish and spices and plenty of garlic. The dish is listed as an appetizer, but unless you are a starter on the Buckeyes' offensive line, you may want to share it with one or two others.
Each day brings a sautéed fish—walleye on my sampling, topped with the same Louisiana Crawfish Sauce as the fusilli (market price, around $20). The sauce is really an étouffée (meaning “smothered”), which begins with the holy trinity of Creole cooking (bell peppers, onions and celery) cooked in a light roux with crawfish tails, cream, butter, garlic and plenty of cayenne. Traditionally served on rice, Gallo's version uses creamy polenta to good effect. While the mild walleye was a bit overwhelmed by the rich and spicy sauce, each bite was sumptuous.
Other starter courses include the fried rice balls called arancini, served with different fillings each night ($8, with a plain pomodoro sauce). Caesar salad is neither Italian (though it was invented by an Italian at his restaurant in Mexico) nor Creole, but the one served here is excellent. It has just the right balance of anchovy, lemon, garlic and Parmesan cheese on crisp romaine ($5 or $8.50). The gumbo ($6 or $8), on two samplings, was a little short on spice, somewhat gummy—too much roux, perhaps—and lacking the chunks of chicken, ham and sausage that you'd expect. I took no issue with the brined and fried chicken wings ($8) served with both a sticky-sweet barbecue sauce and what the menu calls “our famous Cockfight Sauce.” I hadn't heard of the concoction, but it was certainly hot.
Another more-than-credible entrée, if not exactly authentic, is Pasta Russo ($12 or $16) with Bolognese sauce, made here with beef, pork and veal (pork being the new addition). It's got just a bit of dairy in it to smooth out the acid from the tomato. Seafood Creole is the most Creole dish on the menu, with a mild tomato sauce made, of course, with the trinity of vegetables. The sauce highlights the shrimp, fish and other sea creatures and is served over rice (market price, around $20).
Desserts, which change from week to week, range from rich to rich-and-heavy, but the ones I tried were all standard and solid—notably, a fine version of crème brûlée and a solid, tasty cheesecake (both $7).
The truth: The food here is not for the faint of heart or for those watching their cardio health. Yes, of course, you can order a salad, or the chefs will prepare a simple grilled fish. But that's no reason for a night out at Gallo's, where the magic of hearty Italian food comes together with the spice and richness of Creole cooking. Better instead to get some cardio exercise and order the oyster ($14, when available), crawfish or shrimp ($12.50) po'boy sandwich. It comes fully dressed with lettuce, mayo, tomato, pickles and hot sauce. This is as close to true New Orleans po'boys as we have around here, and worth every calorie. Likewise, a big plate of spicy jambalaya ($17) will do just perfectly, thank you, with chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun tasso ham.
These big portions come at very fair prices—everything on this menu is less than $20 (filet mignon and Seafood Creole excepted). Indeed, two hearty eaters could make do here with two starters and one main, leaving you room to invest in another French Quarter favorite, the Hurricane, or a nice bottle of red from Italy—Chianti is a nice fit with most of this food. Wine prices, like the food, are more than reasonable.
Gallo's Kitchen is unassuming, just off Riverside Drive on Nottingham Road. The space is comfortable enough—nothing special in terms of design or décor—instead, it features plain wooden tables, well-spaced, and a long bar surmounted by the usual display of bottles and three flat screen TVs. A nice touch is the glass-walled kitchen, allowing diners a voyeuristic peek at chef life. And on the walls, one can learn about grandfather O.P. Gallo and his tuxedo business, and the other family enterprises.
The big, bold and more-than-fairly-priced food here is one reason this neighborhood joint is almost always busy. The other is Tommy. Chef and owner Tommy Gallo (his extended family also run the popular Gallo's Tap Room) is a big presence in the kitchen, bar and dining room. Whether singing a bit of opera in the kitchen, beaming at his customers at the bar or checking on whether you like your food (he will make it right for you, and happily), Tommy is the roux that binds it all together. His cheerful bonhomie infects the whole staff, making dinner at Gallo's Kitchen a great night out—calories be damned!