Food - Glutton at Large: Italian oasis
Giovanni Di Palma continues to dream big and a visit to Caffe GioWednesday November 13, 2013 04:00 am EST
Since opening Antico Pizza Napoletana in 2009, Giovanni Di Palma has become an unlikely controversial figure. In January 2013, Atlanta magazine published a critical profile of the larger-than-life restaurateur. The piece, titled “The Apostle of Pizza,” examined Di Palma’s business practices and struggles in his personal life. Despite his success, Di Palma skirts the line between adoration and disdain from the people who can’t get enough of his food, but also can’t figure him out. After a friend expressed he was a bit sick of Di Palma’s shtick, I sent him to newly opened Caffè Gio for a meatball panini. He texted me later: “Fuck, he got me again.” You can hate him, claim he made a deal with the devil to make such amazing pizzas, or speculate on his personal past, but when it comes to good food you cannot deny that this charismatic man has a vision.
Di Palma’s vision is colorful and limitless, made up of a cluster of restaurants, cafés, and shops on Hemphill Avenue. Inspired by his memories of Naples, he says he’s using the neighborhood’s “natural palette of properties” and allowing development to happen organically. Even though he says he isn’t bound by a time line, Di Palma has clear ideas about what the next six months hold for the almost mythical Westside piazza he’s building.
“In my mind, I want this to be a complete village, a destination. Which means don’t rule out that we will have a seafood bar. We will have a market. We will have great bread. There will be an outdoor bar with limoncello and Bellinis. There will be a place with an outdoor grill where you can buy sausage and peppers,” he says.
Before the holidays, Di Palma hopes to open a market — possibly named after his grandfather — across the street from Antico. It won’t be a fancy shop with gourmet products, he says, but instead the kind of place where you can buy supplies for a weeknight dinner. The market will stock salumi, cheese, olive oils, and dried pastas. It will also have an olive and pepper bar so you can buy those addictive marinated Calabrian chilies you’ve come to love at Antico. (Speaking of Antico, Di Palma is opening a second location in Alpharetta in the spring with a Caffè Gio next door.)
The most recent installment of Di Palma’s vision, the aforementioned Caffè Gio, opened in August. The Caffè was originally slated for a space across the street from Antico, but the summer’s unrelenting rains interfered with construction. “Mother Nature made the decision for me,” Di Palma says. Ten days after making the decision to change course, the Caffè was opened in the back of Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano.
Until now, unless you brought friends to help you take down an entire pizza, it was hard to justify a solo trip to Antico. Gio’s Chicken Amalfitano is closed during the week for lunch. Caffè Gio bridges this gap. You can have a sandwich, some soup, a salad, Italian pastry, or maybe a little gelato without enlisting another stomach to help you along. It’s a small space with a lot of purpose.
In the lunchtime sandwich game, Caffè Gio rivals nearby Provisions to Go. With the help of chef Linton Hopkins of Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene fame, Di Palma developed his own “Westside Italian bread” for the six sandwiches, or panini, on Caffè Gio’s menu. It’s crusty, but the interior is both dense and chewy. It’s fantastic sandwich bread with enough heft to hold hearty selections such as pounded thin chicken Parm made with Bell & Evans breasts, hulking meatballs simmered in ragu and smothered with melted fior di latte cheese, or stacks of Italian salumi with provolone. Each sandwich — they range from $11-$13 — comes with either a cup of lemony zuppa di pollo made daily with chickens from next door or a side salad of crunchy romaine, arugula, and radicchio dressed with Gio’s mom’s lemon and olive oil vinaigrette. You can buy the pastina-laden soup (one of Atlanta’s best chicken soups, by the way) packaged to take home to an ailing loved one. The dressing will also be on sale soon.
With the addition of Caffè Gio, Di Palma is one step closer to making his Westside dream a reality. He may have accumulated some haters over the years, but with three successful restaurants under his belt, it’s obvious the man is doing something right. When asked if he had anything to say in response to his critics, Di Palma is very matter-of-fact.
“Rags to riches, that’s when you get the most venom,” he says. “They can’t believe you did it and when they are not on the rise with you, they get jealous. I am getting paid to be myself and I am proud of what I do. I work for the people that come up to me every day and thank me for being in Atlanta.”