After following the arrows down the winding halls, my friend and I finally arrived in Tuscany, Italy. The candlelit space was bustling with life at 6 p.m. on a Sunday. The wooden tables were bare and stylish, yet the understated simplicity only added to the elegance. At the front of the room, the antipasti were displayed on a round table, the only one with a lace tablecloth. Antipasti are normally appetizers consisting of olives, cheese and meats, but here, they took on a more creative flair, with offerings like meatballs della Giuseppe (pork meatballs baked with ricotta and crispy basil), and prosciutto di Parma, complete with Turkish figs and Tuma Persa cheese. Two waiters whisked by us with plates of still steaming black spaghetti and lamb ragu fettuccine, as if they were doing a pasta dance. The dichotomy between traditional Italy and a more artistic twist was evident.
To clarify, we were not actually in Tuscany, but Ithaca, New York. But over the course of our two-hour meal at Gola Osteria, we were transported to a vineyard on a cool fall night as we indulged in a variety of pasta straight from grandma’s kitchen, albeit with some added special umami. This hidden gem, which is tucked away in the unassuming Quarry Arms building located in downtown Ithaca, is a pleasant surprise.
Our waiter arrived at our table, which to my dismay, was in the back room due to the fact that it was so busy. He asked about my “unique” last name, as he knew some Spahrs from New Jersey. Although I was a Spahr from Chicago, I appreciated the special touch, since he had taken the extra minute to look at my name, under which the reservation was made. He waved his arms, grandly walking us through the menu as if he were performing a show. He had a reason to be proud. The menu frequently changes to make use of the freshest ingredients of the season –– think squash and pumpkin in the fall, black truffle in the winter. Gola Osteria presents its cuisine in three main courses: antipasti, primi (pasta) and secondi (generally meat and fish). Since it was Sunday, there was a special $25 three-course tasting menu. However, we wanted to try the more creative options that were available, so we decided to order à la carte.
Our antipasti arrived in the form of insalata Gola and grilled Mediterranean octopus. The insalata was akin to a Caesar salad, but better. The delicately presented anchovies added the perfect amount of saltiness to the Pecorino Romano sauce. Then there was the grilled octopus, which was situated like a king upon a bed of vibrantly green rapini, surrounded by marinated chickpeas and a homemade squid ink vinaigrette. The colorful presentation, with the bright pumpkin-orange vinaigrette and leafy greens, made this dish entirely Instagrammable, but we preferred to simply eat it. The antipasti were the perfect prelude to what was to come. Of course, our anticipation continued to build for the pasta, and it certainly did not disappoint.
After a bit of a lull, the main event was presented to us: the squash pappardelle and the housemade spaghetti our waiter had recommended from the five pasta choices. The squash pappardelle was a brilliant medley, with an abundance of bacon lardons and fresh candied squash, dressed with a light cheese sauce that did not distract from the other elements. Pappardelle is a thicker noodle, so it aptly absorbed the other flavors. This decadent dish was the perfect ode to a warm and cozy fall evening.
The spaghetti, then, was a transition into winter, with foraged mushrooms, garlic, thyme, butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. We eagerly twirled our spoons around, trying to catch as many richly flavored mushrooms onto the fork as we could. I noticed that when we were finished gobbling up both pastas, the noodles were gone, but a few of the other parts remained. Thus, more noodles would have prolonged our blissful indulgent experience, especially considering each pasta dish cost around $23. Nonetheless, we were still content to eat the lardons and mushrooms without the noodles.
That brings us to the grand finale (excluding dessert): secondi. As college students already breaking the bank, we did not select any of the pricier offerings, ranging from whole branzino fish to classical veal, which cost at least $30. Luckily, we were already very full and content with our previous choices. Gola Osteria is a special-occasion, destination-only restaurant. Maybe one day, I thought, we could return to a little bit of Tuscany in our own Ithaca.
Serves: authentic, high-end Italian cuisine
Vibe: polished and warm