Hours: Tue.-Fri. lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner and late-night menu 6 p.m.-1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sunday brunch Noon-4 p.m., home-style dinner 5-9 p.m.
Fare: Miscellaneous Mediterranean
Prices: Appetizers, soups, and salads $4-9, dinners $10-15
Atmosphere: Shabby swank
Until the clock strikes 10, options abound for meals with style and substance, especially on Pittsburgh's energetic, eclectic South Side. But what about those other, odd times of day -- and night -- when Wendy's won't do, and neither will a bar, but most of your old standbys are sleeping? That's when you'll have to venture off the beaten path.
One place your cravings might lead you is Gypsy Café. Just a block off bustling East Carson Street, it might as well be in another world. A former church social hall, it's been painted in passionate colors -- deep crimson walls, gold columns, a purple floor -- as backdrop for owner Melanie Evankovich's collection of religious iconography and other artworks and antiques. Open doors welcome fresh air and sunlight into what might otherwise be a cavernous space. The concrete floor is softened by Oriental rugs, the tables by white cloths and napkins, for an ambience that is comfortable without lacking elegance. Beneath the high stamped-tin ceiling, the dining room is spacious, but the number of tables makes it feel unduly crowded -- Angelique kept rubbing elbows with a member of the party seated behind her.
Evankovich is an alumna of family-style Abruzzi's and swankier Casbah, and we thought we could detect both influences in this, her first solo venture. Gypsy bills itself as "an intimate neighborhood café inspired by the cuisines of the Mediterranean." Evankovich has chosen not to anchor her menu in one country, nor to venture into funky fusion territory, but to provide a gypsy-like tour of dishes from Italy, Spain, Greece, and the Middle East. From tortellini to tatziki, steak to spanakopites, there is something for everyone on this pleasingly varied list, which will change to keep pace with seasonal ingredients. Sunday has a slightly different program, with brunch starting at the crack of noon and homestyle dinners featuring comfort foods such as lasagna and pot roast.
We began our Gypsy experience with Spanish chorizo and chickpea tapas. A bowl of crumbled sausage and whole chickpeas was served surrounded by points of soft flatbread. The chorizo was redolent of cumin and paprika, the chickpeas coated in a hot red oil. Don't say we didn't warn you to put your napkin in your lap, but the bits of this appetizer that didn't roll off our flatbread were delightfully spicy and savory.
Gypsy fruit salad currently consists of mangoes and oranges on a bed of red-leaf lettuce with a ramekin of honeyed ricotta. The fruit was fresh and juicy, and the dense paste of cheese and honey provided substance without trying to out-sweeten the fruit.
Caprese salad is that summer classic of tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and basil; for a couple extra bucks, we added prosciutto. The dish is a standard for good reason: meaty, salty prosciutto, creamy cheese, fresh basil, and sweetly acidic tomatoes combine to please the whole palate. But the key to such a simple dish is the quality of each ingredient, and unfortunately, the tomatoes did not pass muster: pale, supermarket-grade beefsteaks have no business appearing on a restaurant plate in mid-July. On the other hand, the cheese was superb, rich in flavor and tender without any of the chewiness that even fresh mozzarella can evince.
Summer is for pesto as well as tomatoes, and Angelique could not resist an entrée of shrimp on rosemary skewers, brushed with pesto, then broiled and served on a bed of vegetable orzo. The shrimp were plump and succulent, the pesto cheesy and pine-nutty, so that it formed a delicately delicious crust under the broiler. The orzo, with peas, onions, and the aforementioned sub-par tomatoes, was on the bland side, but a side dish of peas and baby carrots was buttery-rich.
Jason's Summer Ravioli were filled with roasted garlic, mushroom, and romano and generously doused with vibrant tomato-basil sauce. Chunks of green pepper gave the sauce a gentle, vegetal bite. On the first taste, the ravioli seemed too firm and the flavor unbalanced, as if the garlic had been over-roasted, but soon the combination of bold garlic, earthy mushrooms, and mellow romano won him over.
Gypsy Café desserts are all homemade and there are a surprising and tempting lot of them. We shared a slice of chocolate raspberry layer cake, a robust confection with subtle layers of jam and a too-sweet (although some would say there's no such thing) chocolate buttercream frosting.
Like some of the dishes we tried there, Gypsy Café has all the ingredients for success, even if they have not quite yet combined in perfect alchemy. Whether due to produce-market failure or cooking techniques that are still being honed, the food lacks the confidence of a more established establishment. Give it time, though; we think the Gypsy has yet to hit her stride. The friendly staff, alluring ambience, and affordable late-night menu all make the Gypsy Café a desirable destination, and there's no doubt that we'll return. Pittsburgh may not be the city that never sleeps, but it's good to know that when you stay up late, you can eat in style.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars