Is there one traditional, affordable Italian restaurant in America that doesn’t have chicken parm on the menu? Doubt it. And that’s a good thing. Can you find me an American adult who’s never had chicken parm? Good luck trying.
The dish originated in the Northeast by Italian immigrants and became an Italian-American restaurant staple by the 1950s. When made well, chicken parm is a whole lot of yum.
I chose two traditional, affordable Italian restaurants that have been around awhile: Gigi’s, founded in 1967, and Cafe Cibo, which opened in 1999. Both places called their versions “Parmigiana.” So to show the proper respect, we’ll use that.
Gigi’s Treasure Island location — there’s also one in St. Pete Beach — has been open since 1970. And it looks it. That’s not to say the place is rundown, just, um, antique. If you like the feel of an old, traditional Italian restaurant, this is your joint. The menu even has a category called Early Bird Specials. The only things missing were red-and-white checked tablecloths and fedora-wearing old-timers sitting in the corner.
We had a party of seven on Sunday at 6. The smallish dining room was full, the tables close together. It took longer than we liked for a server to appear. (Someone cracked “if” she showed up instead of “when”. Wait — that was me.) But we couldn’t be too snooty. After all, we had a large group dining at a restaurant on the beach at the height of tourist season.
It all got sorted and the drinks (Peroni for me) arrived punctually. Bonnie and I split the Chicken Parmigiana ($22), and I couldn’t resist a Wedge Salad ($12.95).
It’s hard to make Chicken Parmigiana look pretty. So Gigi’s doesn’t try. They simply put a healthy portion on a white plate. The bird was smothered in melted parmesan and the fettuccine covered in red sauce.
I don’t like my wedge salads subtle. Bring them slathered in blue cheese dressing and covered in bacon crumbles. This one definitely fit the bill.
Texture and Taste
When Mom made her legendary chicken parmesan, she pounded on the meat until it was translucent. That’s what I got used to, but as I’ve come to find out, that’s not how restaurants do it. Gigi’s chicken was thinner than most. (Check mark.)
This was not fork-cut chicken parm. I used a knife to saw into the shell of cheese, which yielded nice chewy bites when mixed with the chicken and simple red sauce. The fettuccine was fine, perhaps a little softer than I’d hoped.
Most white-meat chicken I’ve had in recent years has tended toward dry, even chalky. (Perhaps it’s my more exacting tastebuds.) Gigi’s chicken was on the dry side, but moister than most, and more than moist enough when mixed with the other ingredients. The portion was just right for the two of us.
The Wedge was as advertised — crunchy and messy and with so much dressing that we left small pools of it on the plate.
Cafe Cibo is located on 4th Street North at 87th Avenue in St. Pete. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, we got a table right away on the covered patio. Traffic noise all but drowned out the light instrumental music, which was fine by me.
Like we did at Gigi’s, Bonnie and I decided to split the Chicken Parmigiana ($20.75), and were assessed a $5 fee for the privilege. I’m no fan of split charges, but this one turned out to be a value add: Bonnie and I each got to choose our own salad (she the Caesar, me the house), and our own pasta (Bonnie fettuccine, me penne).
The dish included one breast on each of our plates, topped (but not covered) with a thick padding of parmesan. The chicken was thinner than that of Gigi’s (a bonus check mark).
The portion was so huge that we couldn’t envision not splitting Cafe Cibo’s Chicken Parmigiana.
The salad was no meager side deal, but came in a big bowl.
Texture and Taste
Let’s start with the salad, a winner. A hefty portion of mixed greens, red onions, cherry tomatoes and black olives was dressed in a house balsamic vinaigrette just as I like it — generous but not soaked. The dressing had just the right ratio of sweetness to tang.
The chicken parm was perplexingly inconsistent. Some bites bordered on sublimely juicy and flavorful, but a few near the edge were crackly, almost burnt. The cheese was not well melted either. My penne pasta was firm, if not quite al dente.
The marinara sauce carried the day. It was subtly delicious and smooth, not fussy or fancy, elevating the bites of chicken parm, and the pasta too.
Two Restaurants Played a Game of Chicken—Parmigiana, and the Winner Is …
Not an easy decision. Each place did certain things well, and others not so much. Although I’m a sucker for a wedge salad, Cafe Cibo’s house made the contest a dead heat. Truth be told, I liked each restaurant’s salad better than their chicken parm.
What ultimately tilted the decision in Cibo’s favor was its terrific marinara sauce.
Another nod to this week’s winner: Cafe Cibo offers a bowl of bread at no charge. I don’t much care to dip pieces in a blend of oil and Italian seasoning, so I usually ask for butter. Cafe Cibo had its own dipping sauce, the likes of which I hadn’t tasted.
The orange-hued potion was elegantly seductive, present but not overpowering. I asked the server what was in it. After some pleading on my part, she revealed that it combined tomato sauce with lots of garlic and basil. And butter. Yum.