Review: Seoul's Best Italian From Il Gattino in Haebangchon (해방촌 일 갓티노)

I found out after my visit to this place I'm introducing today that it has already been buzzing within the foodie community in Seoul. I have my good buddy Sam to thank though for introducing me to this gem!

There's a bit of a great divide in the Italian cuisine scene of Seoul; on one hand you have cheap and shitty "Italian"-name-only joints dishing out packaged pasta and sauces for low prices and then you have some quality joints that are mostly part of high-end luxury restaurants with good food but a meal that does a hefty damage to your finances.Few, if any, true Italian establishments exist in Seoul between this wide chasm where taste and price are of satisfaction which is why I've more or less given up on eating Italian in general in Seoul the last few years.

So when my buddy Sam told me he had picked Italian for a lunch get-together one day, I was admittedly initially skeptical. More so when I found out the place he was suggesting was operating in a secretive, "keep-easy" kitchen within Good to Go Cafe in Haebangchon (formerly where Indigo used to be). My doubts didn't have anything to do with GTGC as they serve a fine selection of comfort and deli-style eats but the idea of essentially two restaurants operating in one sounded like it was taking a bite bigger than it could chew, too many chefs in the kitchen, yadda yadda. Still, having faith in Sam's two cents on food matters, I followed along to this secret Il Gattino, supposedly located within the cafe.

It was a bit interesting at first when we entered GTGC as there was nary a mention of this alleged Il Gattino restaurant. We were first confused and even walked around the building wondering if there was a new, hidden back area but nope, not a blurb or anything. So when we finally asked the nice server lady she went to the kitchen and brought out the awesome Giovanni, manager and owner of Il Gattino, who enthusiastically greeted us and led us to a table in the back in the cafe's outdoor patio.

Apologies in advance for the lower quality pictures from my phone
since I didn't have my camera on me :(

Giovanni is quite the friendly and amusing character who, as busy as the restaurant is, took the time to welcome us and share his vision and heart for what Il Gattino was about. Like myself and so many others in Korea, Giovanni too was rather unhappy with the state of Italian cuisine in Seoul and for how exorbitant the prices were for uninspired and dull offerings. Not only does Il Gattino make all dishes to order but they make their own pasta, sauces, and other ingredients- just like a true Italian home kitchen. In fact, Giovanni beamed that the fourth floor of the very same building had been converted into their mini-"factory" where they made most of these ingredients used for the dishes. Talk about freshness!

As the restaurant itself isn't "officially" open, the menu was still being tweaked and other rough edges being sorted out but I certainly couldn't tell from my visit that there were any kinks or knots in the restaurant's operations. Giovanni really meticulously goes over the menu to explain what the dishes are, what the daily offerings are, and also inputs what he would recommend to get a full meal based on your group size. The prices are stellar here, especially for an Italian restaurant with appetizers running roughly between 8,000 to 10,000 range, pasta dishes from 10-13,000, and bigger dishes such as lasagna in the 12-15,000 range from what I recall. In retrospect, I wish on our visit we had a larger group so we could have gotten many more dishes but alas with only two of us and two stomachs between us, we made the most of our order and waited.

Kicking things off were glasses of the house wine. Nice and dry it was a great complement to the richer dishes that were to follow, not to mention the price was stellar- 5,000 won for a glass.


On Giovanni's recommendation, we got the baked aubergine (that's eggplant for you fellow Americans) which came with thick slices of hearty bread, still warm from the oven.


I had my doubts when ordering this starter as I'm not a big aubergine/eggplant fan in general. The bland taste of aubergine I can handle but that combined with the often mushy texture- especially when they're cooked- makes them one of the few vegetables I'm not so keen on.

However, the baked aubergine here may just about be the best aubergine dish I've ever tasted. The aubergine cuts are topped with a tangy and rich homemade tomato sauce and given a generous spread of mozzarella and baked to perfection. The combination of flavors alone is enough to get your eyes rolling in pleasure but it's the expert cooking, which leaves the eggplant soft but still with texture, that makes it so pleasant. Be sure to leave a bit of your bread at the end to sop up the sauce on the bottom. I could eat this dish alone by myself. Bravo.



Among the pastas, which are also made fresh, the gnocchi intrigued me as I know their preparation can be tedious. And if prepared and cooked wrong, they have a strong starchy smell and taste that masks whatever sauce they come with. But Il Gattino's gnocchi came recommended again by Giovanni and we settled on it for our pasta dish. You have a choice of sauces such as bolognaise however we went with the meat sauce for our lasagna so we decided to go with the alfredo for the gnocchi.

I expected a (literally) cheesy, gooey sauce to top the gnocchi. But on first taste, I was very surprised as it's not an overpowering cheese flavor that's there. Rather a simple yet irresistibly delicious taste of browned butter envelopes your taste buds. The savory and creamy flavors of the browned butter are deliciously rich and with notes of the Parmesan but it's not to the point that it overwhelms the little dumpling nuggets. As you chewed on the gnocchi you got a subtle sweeter note from its carb makeup. And that sauce- health concerns aside- I may have licked that plate's leftover sauce if I was in the privacy of my own home.



Last, but certainly not least, the lasagna arrived at our table with the plate still piping hot from the oven. Nestled between the multiple layers of the pasta sheets was an ample spread of Bolognese sauce while the top of the lasagna had a covering of rich mozzarella and freshly shaved Parmesan cheese.


You can choose what meat you want in your lasagna but Giovanni recommended the traditional beef which is what I would have gone with anyway. The Bolognese sauce is ample in its ground beef with nice, subtle garlic notes and a nice tang from the sauce. The layers of pasta were cooked just right with a pleasant density and chew. For all its pleasantness though, I initially couldn't help but feel like there was just something that was missing. In Korean, there's an expression that something is just lacking that final 1 percent and that's what I felt with the lasagna. It didn't hit me what it was until much later and that was the realization of the absence of more cheese in the filling. My mom herself is quite known for her own lasagna and it's one of my favorite dishes she makes and even in her version she puts an ample amount of ricotta cheese in between. My friend Sam also makes a top notch lasagna himself that's adapted from Ina Garten which uses rich and tangy goat cheese in between that really takes the lasagna over the top.

However, as I discovered in my research, using such cheeses in the filling is largely considered an offshoot development from Italian-American cuisine. Lasagna itself has some slight variations depending on the region in Italy but it seems that, for the most part, the Italians like to keep the use of cheese light- mostly as a final top layer- while their Italian-American counterparts prefer the richer lasagna with ample cheese in between the layers. As I'm a byproduct of the latter, it's clear that that's what I was missing from Il Gattino's lasagna. But that's something of my own preference and the lasagna here is still great on its own both generous in pasta and sauce.


Traditional Italian desserts such as tiramisu and other sweet treats with homemade mascarpone, fresh cream, and such are on hand and seem to also elicit praise though I haven't tried their dessert.

Walking out from our meal, I felt something peculiar I hadn't ever felt after eating Italian in Korean: satisfaction. Instead of walking out with a partially-filled stomach with a ridiculously lighter wallet, I walked out of Il Gattino stuffed with good food and surprised at how affordable prices were (though I was graciously treated by Mr. Sam ^0^).

At Il Gattino, you'll have the ease of mind knowing the ingredients are fresh and made from scratch, dishes are made to order, and you'll get more from your won here than any Italian joint in Seoul. There's passion and love in the dishes here and your taste buds will be able to tell and I, for certain, will be back soon.

Bravo, Il Gattino. Bravo

Ratings: 3.5 out of 4 stars
Dishes are authentic, fresh, from scratch, and obviously made with a lot of love and passion. The simple dishes such as the baked eggplant and gnocchi really shine for their high quality ingredients and taste while prices are more than agreeable. Owner Giovanni has great pride in the food he serves which more than lives up to his zeal.

Address: 

서울시 용산구 용산동 2가 46
46, Yongsan-gu, Yongsan-dong 2-ga, Seoul


Come out of exit 2 of Noksapyeong Station and walk straight for approximately 300 meters or so along the walls of the Yongsan military base. You'll get to a point where the road splits on your left. Follow that offshoot (you'll know it's correct because you'll see a bunch of large earthenware pots stacked against the wall) for about 250 meters until you get to a four way intersection. Good to Go Cafe will be on your right and across from a small mart. Please note: You must make a reservation in advance!

Telephone: 
02-797-2970 This is actually the number for Good to Go Cafe. I'm not sure if they take reservations by phone but they do encourage sending a FB message to Il Gattino below.

Website:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Il-Gattino
http://www.ilgattino.co.kr/ (not yet open)

Parking: N/A

Alcohol: Wine (by the bottle and glass) and beer (tap and bottled) available.

Tip: 
You must make a reservation in advance here either by calling or sending a FB message to Il Gattino. 

Weekends tend to book up fast so make early reservations or try doing so on a weekday.

As Il Gattino is a real home kitchen style restaurant that's still getting everything together, ingredients for certain dishes can run out, new menu items might appear, and/or the restaurant might not be operating due to any unexpected issues. Again, check the FB page and/or contact Giovanni to make reservations in advance.