article by Emily Williams
images by Courtney Matinata
For Northern transplants living in the South, it’s beginning to feel a little bit more like home. As many folks north of the Virginia line decide to make North Carolina their new home, their culinary traditions have followed suit. From specialized New York-style delis to die-hard bagel shops to Philadelphia cheese steak franchises (Google “Lee’s Hoagie House Charlotte”!), it’s all here. And thanks to chef and Long Island native Jerry Simonetti, Gaston County now has its own scrumptious oasis of fine Italian dining in the form of Lily’s Bistro in downtown Gastonia.
If Jerry’s name rings a bell, you’re probably thinking of Simonetti’s Pizza in Belmont, well-known among locals for winning the title of Best of Gaston County for its mouth-watering pizza six out of eight years in a row. He opened the shop in 2008, and its success has been steadily growing, thanks to the excellent pies and freshest of fresh ingredients.
Since then, Simonetti has also opened Addley’s in the popular General Store on Main Street, serving bagels from-scratch and in-house roasted coffee. In fact, the main thoroughfare of any city is Simonetti’s specialty.
Lily’s Italian Bistro, lovingly named after his granddaughter, is in the heart of the city on Main Avenue. With its butter-yellow walls, maroon accents, and gleaming 100-year-old antique floor, it’s been a popular spot for Gastonians to gather when they’re craving a meal in an elegant surrounding.
For Simonetti, it’s been a wish fulfilled. Before coming to Charlotte in 2007, Jerry ran several restaurants in Long Island, one of which was placed in the Top 40 of New York. Lily’s has proven to be just as popular and a major draw for downtown patrons.
“We often get so busy during the lunch rush that we have a wait line, especially now that the summer is starting up and the outdoor patio is becoming another attraction,” Simonetti says.
Given the delicious adventure that awaits his customers’ taste buds, it is little wonder there is a line to get in. “Nothing is frozen. Nothing. Either here at Lily’s or at the pizza shop,” Simonetti says. “I want to ensure there is value and quality in anything you choose at Lily’s.”
With over 40 years of experience behind him, Simonetti knows what his customers want: four-star food for a reasonable price, well-sized portions, and flavors with plenty of pizazz. And oh my, is there plenty of that.
If you want to start off with an authentic Italian dish, go with Nana’s meatball. “We make up to about 600 of them a week,” he explains. “It’s about as close to my grandmother’s original recipe as you can get.” Large enough for two people to split, it’s melt-in-your-mouth soft, doused in a specialty marinated tomato sauce for which Simonetti has become well known, using fresh tomatoes, roasted garlic, and
pungent strips of basil.
For something lighter, there’s always cocoli, a fluffy fried dough stuffed with prosciutto di Parma and buffalo mozzarella—a chewy, indulgent experience enhanced by a spicy tomato oil as a dipping sauce. For a salad, the grilled Caesar salad is a taker. Yes, grilled lettuce is a thing and a delicious one, so don’t shy away. Long leaves of romaine lettuce are flash grilled for 15 seconds with an herbed olive oil. It doesn’t lose its crunch (nope, not wilted) and has a pleasant pop of smoky flavor.
For the main event, go for a traditional entrée like the caramelized onion-crusted salmon or a grilled 8 oz. filet. Both are beautifully and substantially presented. “We always recommend taking the leftovers home! We’re known for our large portions,” Simonetti says with a chuckle. The salmon rests on a bed of addictively creamy risotto and colorful corn succotash, while the filet is accompanied by thick Yukon mashed potatoes, asparagus, and the welcome sight of a roasted clove of garlic that’s just begging to be spread on the warm bread brought to your table.
As this is an Italian restaurant, you needn’t forgo the wine list, which boasts an impressive array of chiefly Italian whites and reds. Simonetti recommends his favorite label, Tenuta Polvaro, in either a white blend or Cabernet to accompany fish and meat dishes. An equally impressive beer and cocktail list offers a selection of tasty accoutrements to complete the experience.
Dessert cannot be passed up, despite the filling meal you may have just had. Go for the ricotta no-crust cheesecake, thick and dense, with a creamy texture that only ricotta cheese can achieve. It’s not overly sweet, which means the raspberry coulis and seasonal berries complement it well. Or, if you want something a bit more traditional with a twist, a classic crème brûlée (tangy mango and tequila was a recent effective and adventurous flavor pairing—perfect for the summertime) is the way to go.
After all the edible delights that he’s brought to Gaston County, what’s next on his agenda? Simonetti says he’s hoping to start up yet another restaurant in a boutique hotel being built across the street from Lily’s Bistro. The theme, once again, will be fine dining. “I’ll be aging my own steaks,” he says, “and probably incorporating more French, classic cuisine as well.” One thing is certain, whatever he tries his hand at, it’s bound to be a popular draw for Northerners and Southerners alike.
Lily’s Italian Bistro
141 W. Main Avenue • Gastonia
704.864.3086 • www.gastonianews.com