Food Network celebrity Giada De Laurentiis insisted on “happy colors and a feminine touch” at GDL Italian by Giada inside the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)
Food critic

When she finishes checking off the menu highlights, an effusive server at the latest dining addition to the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore smiles and says, “Let that marinate and I’ll be back.”

Seated at a tall communal table in the center of the restaurant, half of us are facing games of chance and half of us are gazing at the nearby Ravens stadium through the windows of GDL Italian by Giada, named for Food Network celebrity and cookbook author Giada De Laurentiis.

Red, or shades of it, is everywhere else we look: the tiled pizza oven near the exhibition kitchen, the theatrical overhead lights, the signature frozen drink highlighting rosé wine. “It’s really important that my guests feel like they’re part of my world when they walk into the space,” says De Laurentiis via email. “I wanted bright, happy colors and a feminine touch to the room,” an alluring stage set that finds shelves stocked with the personality’s cookbooks and mugs and multiple intimate lounge areas. No question, GDL Italian by Giada is easy on the eyes.

The menu combines recipes from De Laurentiis’s TV appearances and cookbooks — “classics” including Tuscan rib-eye and chicken parm — as well as dishes designed to appeal to locals. Set off with a “B” for Baltimore, the latter ones include a twist on crab cakes: crisp arancini that cut open to reveal seafood and rice ramped up with whole grain mustard and Worcestershire sauce. The Italian crab cake is one of several ways regional specialties are “Giada-fied,” says executive chef Brian Drosenos.


The thick pork chops are served with checca, a sauce of fresh tomato, basil and Parmesan cheese. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

A “C” ought to precede the limp-crusted pizzas with only a hint of char. Our funghi pie found a clump of arugula in the center of the gummy round.

Pastas show more promise. Al dente chitarra, sauced using mascarpone cheese and brightened with peas and lemon zest, goes down like an enlightened pasta Alfredo.

An early favorite among the entrees is the thick brined pork chop, paved with grated Parmesan and bread crumbs and served with Giada’s checca, a sauce coaxed from fresh tomato, basil and Parmesan. Chicken Parmesan has juiciness and the tang of tomato in its favor. Hyped by our server, whole grilled branzino was a whole lot of mush.

Twenty bucks gets you a taste of all five side dishes, the most memorable of which are lemony smashed potatoes and corn tossed with crumbled Italian sausage from the venerable G. Esposito & Sons Jersey Pork Store in Brooklyn. More, thanks. Desserts favor chocolate lovers; tiramisu, each of its multiple layers visible within a glass bowl, makes a nice shared ending.


The crab cakes are a nod to Baltimoreans, but are given a twist as arancini with the seafood inside. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

In a take on a pasta Alfredo, the chitarra is sauced with mascarpone cheese, peas and lemon zest. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Drosenos, 38, says he was attracted to the venture for the chance to work with a well-known chef and growth opportunities within Caesars Entertainment, the casino’s owner. He comes to the property from BLT Prime by David Burke in the Trump International Hotel in the District, where on his second day he was tasked with feeding the POTUS.

Why Baltimore for the star’s first restaurant on the East Coast? De Laurentiis says: “The people of Baltimore remind me of Italians — they are proud of their town, culture and food.” She adds, “I also thought it would be fun to be in a space with Guy and Gordon,” as in Guy Fieri’s Baltimore Kitchen + Bar and Gordon Ramsay Steak, the other well-known brands in the house.

Service is enthusiastic and accommodating, if a bit quirky. When a manager comes over to offer us a gratis bottle of Champagne, we wonder if one of us has been tagged as a restaurant reviewer. Nope. Turns out Giada’s stylist simply wanted to welcome some of his friends with some bubbly. Wrong party, but I appreciate the manager’s save: “Let me buy you the Chianti you’ve ordered.” (We decline his generosity.) And as I’m signing the check, the server with a way with words lets us know she appreciates our business early in the life of the celebrity-stamped restaurant.

“Thank you for being pioneers,” she says.

1525 Russell St. (inside the Horseshoe Casino), Baltimore. 443-931-4575. caesars.com/horseshoe-baltimore/restaurants/gdl-italian. Entrees, $23 to $51.