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ITHACA, N.Y. — There isn’t fried calamari at Gola Osteria, but there is fried smelt.
The bite-size fish are dusted in flour and fried until crispy, salted and served with lemon wedges.
Little about Gola is typical, but it is authentic Italian with an original bent.
From the food and drink menu to music playlists and artwork on the walls, the restaurant maintains an atmosphere of constant evolution.
“We are a fine dining restaurant, but we want it to be fun,” said Kami Drake-Epps, co-owner of Gola with her husband, Chef Sam Epps. “We don’t play your typical Italian music.” On any given night, you are as likely to hear Led Zeppelin as you are 1940s swing.
Likewise, Chef Epps collects inspiration for his menu from near and far: food reviews and new cookbooks, or even something he’ll eat at his mother’s house.
“We stay true to the basics of Italian cooking, using ingredients you may not find in Italy. We can put a creative spin on it and put it on our menu,” he said.
Chef Epps is particularly proud of his homemade pasta, made fresh by hand every morning. One luscious special uses pasta called gnocchi lunghi, a kind of chewy, thick spaghetti.
Epps pairs it with an oxtail ragu, what would be a traditional Roman pasta dish if made with small potato gnocchi.
“We cook the oxtail for twelve hours in wine and fresh herbs. It all cooks down into this really rich, perfect winter stick-to-your-ribs kind of food,” he said.
When asked about favorite menu items, Drake-Epps immediately mentions the grilled Mediterranean octopus. (“I love fresh seafood. It’s delicate, it’s tender, it’s amazing. It melts in your mouth.”)
As of February 2016, the octopus is served with cannellini puree, spicy puffed rice, and citrus vinaigrette; the accompaniment changes, as does the rest of the menu, on a weekly basis.
In the know
While red sauce is not on the menu, it is still available.
“If someone comes in and asks for spaghetti and meatballs with red sauce, we have it, we’ll serve it,” said Drake-Epps. “But we don’t advertise it. That’s kind of like a little secret.”
Gola’s traditional red sauce is actually the same red sauce that Chef Epps used to prepare for The Coddington, on South Hill, where he and Drake-Epps both worked and where the couple first met.
They moved back to Ithaca in 2014 after the birth of their son, and opened Gola in the same space in the Quarry Arms building that once housed Renee’s Restaurant and Valentine Café before it.
“Hopefully one day we’d like to open another restaurant in Ithaca,” Epps confided, “an inexpensive family restaurant that has the kind of food you would see in an Italian American restaurant during the 1940s or 50s.”
For now, that red sauce makes its starring appearance in Gola’s little-known to-go menu, a concise selection of classic Italian American food.
The pasta — spaghetti, baked fusilli, and manicotti — are all still homemade, and Gola’s pork meatballs, usually served with crispy basil and ricotta as an antipasto, make an appearance in the humble meatball sub.
“Even though it’s a different price point, and a totally different type of food, we still use the highest quality ingredients for all of it,” said Epps.