Mention Gambino's Bakery and some New Orleanians will automatically crave dessert, especially a tall, multi-layered, pudding-filled slice of its famous doberge cake. Lately, though, Cafe Gambino, a restaurant inside the vintage Metairie bakery, has been making a case for lunch.
People still come here for birthday cakes and boxes of petits fours, of course, but these days some also show up with muffulettas on their minds, or a plate of liver and onions over grits or even beef tournedos slathered with parsley-flecked maitre d' butter. My first lunch here started with a basket of hot Italian bread and a plate of herbed olive oil for dipping, progressed to creamy, smoky ham and mushroom soup and then on to shrimp and lima beans, a rarely seen, old-fashioned Creole combo. Dessert was an ice cream sundae in a praline cup. The whole meal ran about $15 and ensured I would soon return to see what else this unexpected find could offer.
Gambino's Bakery has been around since 1949, and it has locations around the area. When the company decided to centralize baking at its Kenner headquarters, the move left enough space behind the counter at the Metairie shop for chef Wanda McKinney to open Cafe Gambino in 2008.
Certainly, some bakery customers may have visited since then without any idea there was a lunchroom in back. Glimpsed fleetingly, the cafe can be mistaken for a seating area for people to polish off cupcakes on the spot. But this is a full-fledged dining room with table service, beer and wine for midday libations. There also is a small video poker corral. The afternoon traffic is solid with medical types in scrubs, seniors out for long luncheons and the occasional family gathered for a midweek meal.
The menu is mainstream Creole Italian, though it's done with enough scratch-made care and such frequent flashes of originality that it exceeds the typical neighborhood lunch joint standard. One of many specials on a recent Friday was a napoleon of eggplant and fried oysters held together with cheese and cream over sweet, chunky house-made red sauce. Naturally, this sauce gets a lot of play. Besides the predictable company of chicken Parmesan or meatballs, it's also ladled over interesting Italian crepes filled with ground veal and sausage and topped with provolone.
From this Italian anchor, the menu branches widely. People at half the tables dredge tortilla chips through spinach and crawfish dip, one of the few appetizers. A slab of grilled tuna gets a touch of buttery caper sauce, and the option to add a few grilled shrimp to the beef tournedos turns lunch at the back of a bakery into something like a banquet feast. Crabmeat au gratin, with large lumps of crabmeat under a bubbling, yellow crust of cheddar, would be at home at a French-Creole cafe.
The dessert list, enthusiastically pushed by the familial waitstaff, is long, though it curiously omits the cakes for which Gambino's is famous. But here you do need to look past the bakery case to find this out-of-the-ordinary lunch spot in the first place.