There are a wealth of new local eateries cropping up in the metro and even more coming. If they’re not on your radar, they should be. From the comfy atmosphere at The Barrel on Western Avenue to the laid-back vibe at the Plaza District’s coffee shop, you might find a new regular hangout.
— by Devon Green, photos by Mark Hancock and Shannon Cornman
Sergio’s Italian Bistro
104 E. Gray, Norman
What works: Friendly service and good value.
What needs work: The marinara sauce is way too sweet.
The Tip: Italian-American dishes in a nice restaurant with prices nearly the same as fast food.
Sergio’s Italian Bistro owner/operator Sergio Garcia has an obvious passion for Italian cuisine, but he’s not a native of Roma. He’s from Mexico City.
“Most of my daily specials are Italian,” Garcia said. “But I’m from Mexico, so I mix it up a little bit. I often make a poblano cream that’s similar to Alfredo sauce.”
Located in a small, free-standing building that backs up to the Sooner Theatre, the restaurant is particularly convenient for pre-show dinners or post-matinee lunch.
The decor inside could have been done by someone’s doting Italian aunt reflecting a mélange of old-world elegance and mid-20th century kitsch. It’s an inviting, homey atmosphere without a shred of pretension. The concept is obviously casual, but each table has a tablecloth and tidy place settings. Music on the sound system alternated between La Dolce Vitaflavored jazz and operatic arias. The two compact dining rooms provide an intimate ambience.
Garcia, who worked at Othello’s Italian Restaurant and Pepe Delgado’s on Campus Corner prior to opening his own place, specializes in a tantalizing blend of Latin on Latin flavors. Weekends, he sometimes whips up Franco-Italiano favorite chicken Marsala.
But don’t get the impression Sergio’s is a United Nations place; it is mostly familiar fare found in Italian restaurants across the Midwest.
Soft potato dumpling gnocchi ($3.50) sautéed in garlic butter is on the appetizer list, and a muffuletta sandwich ($7.50) stuffed with ham and banana peppers is for a meal.
Sergio said he learned to cook Italian from books, and it’s evident he has been a good study. He also occasionally consults with the brothers Patsy and Vittorio Benso, now retired from years of being Italiano restaurateurs in Norman. “Fresh” is Sergio’s mantra, which leads him to alter dishes based on seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables.
“I’ve been making a roasted pepper and chicken soup because the red bell peppers are so good right now,” he said.
The menu includes starters, salads, oven-roasted sandwiches, pastas, pizza and seafood dishes. Low-point beer is available, but not wine or liquor.
Our gracious server suggested cheese ravioli ($8.50), paired with mushroom sauce. This mating was a delectable mash-up of rich flavors and creamy texture.
The small, but often overlooked touch of freshly chopped parsley and grated Parmesan on top added fresh flavor and affordable sophistication. There’s a choice of spicy marinara sauce along with sweet marinara, meat sauce, roasted garlic and oil, Alfredo or mushroom sauces for the pasta and specialty dishes.
Baked ziti ($7.50) didn’t skimp on the ricotta and mozzarella that anchored the red sauce-smothered penne pasta. Sergio doesn’t just open a can for his sauces, and that came across loud and clear on my palate. The marinara sauce on one side dish of spaghetti was way too sweet for my taste; I’d go with roasted garlic and olive oil given another opportunity.
Not surprisingly, I learned rich, buttery Alfredo sauce is the numero uno choice with regular customers.
Portobello parmigiana ($7) is seldom found on menus, and Sergio’s version is prepared and served the same as the more common dish made with eggplant. Vegetarians have several other choices, too, including a roasted veggie sandwich ($8), pasta primavera ($7) and caprese salad ($5). Seafood dishes are salmon or shrimp, and all come in under $11 with sides of pasta and steamed veggies included.
Sergio’s kitchen doesn’t have space to create desserts, so he made the good decision to source from La Baguette’s commercial bakery less than two miles away. Cheesecake ($3) was predictably scrumptious.
Sergio’s is a good date-night destination for anyone on a tight budget.
Oklahoma Gazette’s restaurant review policy is to highlight the positive aspects, and include constructive criticism regarding food, ambience or service when appropriate.