“After a year and a half of putting shit in takeout boxes, I want people to come into our restaurant and let us put it on a plate,” says Will Gilson, chef and restaurateur behind Italian restaurant Geppetto, which opened this fall — for real — after a business-saving pivot into takeout and delivery earlier in the pandemic. Geppetto is located in a building with its siblings the Lexington and Cafe Beatrice at the Cambridge Crossing development in East Cambridge.
The idea for Geppetto was in the works in early 2020, “and then 2020 and 2021 happened,” says Gilson. “Obviously we had to shelve a lot of things.” A few dishes Gilson and his team had in mind back then did end up on the menu, such as beet cavatelli with corned beef; a ribeye topped with a bagna cauda croquette; and panzanella — bread salad — made with the classic New England molasses bread anadama. “Those are the three dishes that we thought define the cuisine at Geppetto,” he says, “and they had to sit mothballed for a year and a half.”
Geppetto initially opened in early 2021, operating for a while for just takeout and delivery — a change from the plan but something Gilson says probably saved the business. He had opened the Lexington for indoor dining in late 2020, but it was only a few weeks before COVID case counts went back up, he says. “There were some very, very dark days in here in the wintertime. We were probably 60 days away from being like, we might have to lay everybody off and wait until the world gets better.”
No one was ordering takeout from the Lexington because it wasn’t launched as a takeout restaurant, says Gilson. “We needed to try to pivot.” The team began to offer Geppetto takeout featuring pastry chef Brian Mercury’s pizza as the headliner, along with a few other items, like Caesar salad and tagliatelle. The attention Geppetto got for its takeout launch ultimately helped customers notice that the Lexington, too, was open for takeout, helping it stay afloat through its indoor dining reopening in April 2021.
Now that Geppetto is finally open for sit-down service, there’s no takeout or delivery. Gilson wants to share the restaurant with the world as it was originally intended: an Italian restaurant that’s respectful of culinary traditions but incorporates some “non-traditional techniques … with a touch of nostalgia without being kitschy.” As Gilson said in early 2020, “We’re not trying to harp too much on New-England-meets-Italy,” but longtime fans of big sibling Puritan & Co. will see a similar dedication to seasonal, local sourcing.
Here’s a closer look at some of the dishes on the Geppetto menu.
Tuna and Lardo Crudo
“This is my favorite crudo that’s on the menu right now,” says Gilson. “I wish we sold more of it. I think sometimes people don’t trust lardo; they see ‘lard’ and think that it’s bad.” Gilson says he wanted to avoid the typical crudo formula of “raw fish meets citrus meets, like, radish and jalapeno,” opting instead for a bit of acidity from the balsamic, saltiness from the lardo, and “the sweet and refreshing mist from the nice crisp pear.”
Smoked Short Rib Carpaccio
The short rib is smoked over hardwood charcoal and wood, frozen, and sliced thinly, served with tonnato, an Italian sauce that typically includes tuna, anchovy, capers, and mayonnaise. “It’s kind of like vitello tonnato,” says Gilson, but with short rib instead of veal. Fried capers and wild arugula — ”the spicy stuff,” says Gilson — embellish the dish.
“Everybody loves Caesar salad,” says Gilson, “but I find romaine to be forgettable at best. With the amount of romaine recalls we’ve had over the years, I think romaine is fundamentally broken. So we wanted to try something different, and I like the bitterness of the endive.”
Tony Susi, a veteran of Boston’s Italian restaurant scene, is Geppetto’s pastaiolo. “He’s here making beautiful handmade pastas every single day,” says Gilson. “In the pasta dough, we’ve tried to incorporate things — spinach into the tagliatelle, porcini powder in the pappardelle, beet powder into the cavatelli — so they all have a unique texture and flavor.
“We want the entrees to be shareable,” says Gilson, leaving room for tables to try pasta, too, rather than filling up on an entree each. There are four on the current menu, including the aforementioned ribeye; charcoal grilled swordfish with pesto; roasted lamb shank with root vegetables; and bone-in Berkshire pork chop.
Pastry chef Brian Mercury’s “tiramiso” is a good example of his overall dessert philosophy at Geppetto. It’s pretty faithful to a classic tiramisu, but the addition of miso gives it a savory twist. He also opts for a 70% chocolate grated on top instead of cocoa powder — ”I don’t really enjoy a spoonful of cocoa powder,” says Mercury. The lace cookie on top is made with a sweet dukka-style spice blend with coriander, pink peppercorn, and fennel.
“Italian desserts are classically ‘less is more’; try to keep it simple but beautiful,” says Mercury, “so I’m trying to rein myself in from the past, where I’d always have 9,000 things on the plate. We’re still making desserts that look beautiful but simplistic and precise.” There are nods to New England in Mercury’s baking, like the aforementioned anadama bread or the fact that he buys fresh milled cornmeal from Elmendorf Baking down the street to make Italian almond cornmeal cookies. But he aims to balance local, seasonal inspiration with classic Italian desserts and marry them in a way that is “true to the vibe of Italy and not just a bastardized version of Italian food.” (And there’s always something Negroni-flavored, he notes — ”because I drink too many of them.”)
Geppetto is currently open for dinner (dine-in only) Tuesday through Saturday; reserve a table online.