Restaurant Review: Gemelli
The Narberth BYOB that's worth the hype
by Brian Freedman

Buzz is a fickle thing, and though most restaurants work mightily to generate it, there’s no guarantee that it will result in a packed house or happy customers. In that regard, young restaurants are a lot like pop stars who have just hit the charts with their first big single: It’s great to hear it now, sure, but is there going to be a follow up that lives up to the expectations first laid down?
Gemelli, the undeniably charming BYOB in Narberth, is certainly worthy of the buzz that’s surrounded it since firing up its burners late last year. The space possesses both the warmth of a classic neighborhood spot alongside the far-more-evanescent energy that most such restaurants would have lost by now.
Scoring a reservation can be difficult, and depending on the night you want to visit, may require a bit of flexibility on your part. The food—especially the little touches that shine through certain preparations—shows all the potential you’d hope for from a chef with Clark Gilbert’s pedigree and experience. (He’s cooked everywhere from The Fountain at The Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia to Paris, and a number of other high-caliber spots, too.)
Specifically, I’m thinking about what was easily the best caponata I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting—a startlingly savory riff that matched toothsome chunks of eggplant, the gentle sweetness of golden raisins, exotically aromatic notes of cinnamon, and support roles played by pine nuts, thyme, balsamic, unsweetened cocoa powder, a touch of tomato get the idea.
Each bite was a brilliant in situ reminder that Sicily, for all its connections to Italy, has been significantly influenced by its proximity to North Africa, too. That caponata, not incidentally, was recruited to the service of sprucing up a generous Scottish salmon filet, itself an exercise in restraint and expert seasoning.
Simpler but no less successful was the namesake gemelli. On the new spring menu, it is tossed with a tender veal bolognese that found that tricky middle ground between hearty and seasonally appropriate. An assortment of wild mushrooms anchored it with balance and heft in
equal measure.
Not everything sang quite as clearly, however. The vitello tonnato, for example, was given a more haute treatment than I’d seen before, and the ideas underpinning it were unimpeachable and charmingly clever. A base of braised veal cheeks tossed with tonnato sauce and topped by a hefty layer of tuna tartare, all of it crowned by a perfect little tangle of micro greens. That tonnato sauce, a silky and subtle condiment that Chef Gilbert described to me as essentially a Caesar dressing with preserved tuna, all of it pureed smooth as silk, was dotted around its exterior as an echo, and deeper version, of dish’s multilayered centerpiece.
Unfortunately, it felt a bit too busy for comfort, a touch overwrought, and as a result, none of the flavors had the chance to really shine on their own. It worked, to be sure, but not as clearly as I’d have hoped.
The soup of the day, a delicate bowl of tomato-fennel drizzled with truffle oil, lacked almost any sense of fennel’s licorice-like brightness. The result was a preparation of perfectly good, and unfortunately underwhelming, tomato soup given added depth by truffle oil. This was more an issue of expectations, however—had the waiter informed us that the soup of the day was simply tomato with truffle oil, this one would have been a stellar example.
Desserts were a return to the form that this kitchen is so wonderfully capable of. The crème brûlée was lovely, from the delicate shatter of the crisped top to the subtle jiggle of the custard itself. And the white chocolate-cherry bread pudding was a revelation, the bread (Martin’s potato rolls!) hearty and delicate at the same time, the flavors running the gamut from the sweet (the chocolate and the cherries) to the savory (the charred edges whose intimation of smokiness won me over instantly) to the fabulous netherworld in between (those potato rolls were first soaked in crème brûlée batter).
My visit in April was on the first night of the new spring menu, so the individual dishes should only continue to improve— a fabulous prospect. I also expect the timing to get better, too, as both the kitchen and the front of the house grow more familiar and comfortable with the new dishes. Still, there are some service issues that should be addressed, like the fact that we were never offered more bread after polishing off the first few proffered slices.
But that’s the cost of generating the kind of buzz that Gemelli has, and of working with a menu that changes frequently enough to remain fresh. All things considered, though, it’s the best kind of problem that a new restaurant could have, because it’s easily remedied, and is itself an indication of the supremely positive way that locals have responded to it.
I have faith that this excellent addition to the Main Line dining scene will continue to create excitement for some time to come. More so, in fact, once the rough edges of the new menu are smoothed out and it is afforded the opportunity to charm as completely as it’s capable of. It’s nearly there already.
232 Woodbine Ave., Narberth,
Brian Freedman is a food and wine writer based in Philadelphia.