For the better part of the past two decades, the name Cinelli has been synonymous with Italian-American cuisine in the Triangle.
Gianni Cinelli moved here from New York in 1998 and opened the first Cinelli’s in Durham in 2001. Brothers Gaitano and Peter soon followed suit with Cinelli’s (same name, but a more casual pizzeria concept) in North Raleigh and Cary.
Both of those brothers have since moved on, but Gianni Cinelli stuck around. By his reckoning, he has owned or partnered in 22 restaurants over the years, including Vivo, which remains open on Six Forks Road. The concepts have ranged from family-friendly pizzeria to romantic ristorante, but all have shared a common thread: roots in the Italian-American tradition Cinelli knew while growing up in a first-generation family of restaurateurs in New York.
Somewhere along the way, Cinelli began to dream of tracing his culinary roots further back. He wanted to open a restaurant that would serve Italian regional fare with a focus on the cuisine of Central Italy, where his family lived before immigrating to New York in 1965.
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That dream became reality in February, when Cinelli opened Osteria G in Holly Springs. Cinelli’s renditions of regional classic dishes aren’t slavishly authentic, but they do capture the spirit of the original. The result is good, by and large — sometimes very good — though the kitchen crew are still learning the ropes of cooking dishes rarely seen before in these parts.
That said, only an intractable purist could object to a starter of carciofi alla romana, which takes poetic license by adding a dab of mascarpone to the traditional herb stuffing of tender, long-stemmed artichokes. Or bruschetta misti, another Roman favorite, here served four to an order, each with a different topping piled on with a generous hand.
Carbonara traditionale lives up to its adjective with guanciale and the traditional sauce of raw egg that gets cooked when it's tossed with spaghetti still steaming hot from the pasta pot. Nido di salsiccia (literally, “nest of sausage”) nestles fat, juicy segments of grilled Italian sausage between layers of sautéed broccolini and roasted peppers. Gianni Cinelli will proudly tell you that he makes the sausages from scratch using his mother’s recipe.
Branzino arrosto can be a disappointment to anyone who takes the “arrosto” at face value and expects a whole roasted fish. What you get instead is a pan-seared filet, served over sautéed spinach and creamy risotto — tasty enough, but still.
Porchetta, featuring Heritage Farms pork loin stuffed with herbs, rolled in pork belly and slow roasted, was initially offered as a special. It didn’t take long to earn a spot on the regular menu.
It’s always a good idea, for that matter, to check the chalkboard list of nightly specials. You’ll typically find just four items on the list, one for each course in a traditional Italian meal. There’s plenty of variety, though — and an occasional surprise — in the mix of classics and fresh takes. A course by course sampling of recent offerings should give you an idea.
Antipasto: A meatball trio showcases wild boar in pepper cream sauce, veal in chianti sauce, and Angus beef in a spicy arrabiata. Mini osso buco, made from the small ends of the veal shank, are a charmingly inventive way to transform a traditionally heavy dish into a light starter, with no sacrifice in flavor.
Primi: Here’s where you’ll find fresh pastas (including some you’re not likely to find elsewhere in these parts), from scratch-made lobster agnolotti to spaghetti alla chitarra, which gets its name (chitarra means “guitar”) from the wire-strung wooden frame that’s used to make the pasta and gives it a distinctive square cross-section.
Secondi: Pan-seared duck breast, blanketed in a cherry sauce that’s brightened with a crisp white wine that takes the place of the customary chianti, is another special destined for the regular menu.
Dolce: Lemon ricotta cheesecake. Anyone who has eaten in a Gianni Cinelli restaurant will recognize this as the real Italian deal, light and airy, and not too sweet.
Except for the last time I ordered it, that is, when it was dense and gummy. This was clearly an anomaly, given Cinelli’s cheesecake track record — not to mention most everything else I’ve sampled at Osteria G. Other misfires have fallen in the “minor letdown” category: the branzino, for one, and an order of porchetta that arrived slathered in a roux-based gravy rather than the promised (and more suitable) jus.
When I asked Cinelli about these miscues, he explained that he hired Greg Goldberg, a French-trained chef who previously worked at Second Empire, several weeks after opening Osteria G, and is still teaching him the ropes of Italian cuisine. Judging by the overwhelming majority of dishes I’ve enjoyed here, Goldberg is a quick learner.
Cinelli did much of the work himself in transforming the former Little Hen space into a rustically romantic dining room and cozy bar (with a thoughtfully chosen all-Italian list), including building a stone arch between the two. Lining the wainscoted walls of the dining room, a series of vintage black and white photos set a nostalgic mood.
Among the Italian street scenes and photos of people eating spaghetti, there’s a picture of the Cinelli family, taken just after they first arrived in New York. Gianni Cinelli, who frequently comes out into the dining room and mingles with guests, will happily tell you who’s who in the photo.
“That’s me, I’m the baby,” he’ll say as he points to the child in his mother’s arms. More than half a century later, Osteria G — a restaurant that celebrates that family’s heritage — would make any mother proud.
5160 Sunset Lake Road, Holly Springs
Rating: 3 stars
Atmosphere: rustically romantic
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: welcoming, generally attentive, knowledgeable
Recommended: carciofi alla romana, nido di salsiccia, specials
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations: recommended on weekends
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; small sidewalk patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.