Giada de Laurentiis navigates her way around the maze of slot machines and blackjack tables inside Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, and heads toward the space that will soon house her new restaurant, GDL Italian by Giada.
Upon entering the vacated eatery on the second floor—which formerly housed Mexican concept Johnny Sanchez from chefs Aarón Sanchez and John Besh—she is quick to point out interior details that will need to be transformed before the grand opening in April. Her first note: the wire ceiling pattern.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m in a cage,” she says.
The visit to the casino this week marks De Laurentiis’ fifth walkthrough since announcing her new Baltimore restaurant last summer. Now nearing its final stages, the 180-seat Italian trattoria will draw inspiration from the chef’s Roman roots, while also making use of ingredients from local purveyors.
“When I do projects, I’m very involved,” she says. “I’m a very detail-oriented person. Down to picking the flatware. I think females are different from males in that sense. I might say, ‘I really don’t like the ceiling.’ But a man would be like, ‘Just don’t look up.’ So it’s a different perspective. It’s not good or bad, it’s just different. Women see things that men don’t see, and vice versa. That’s why we make great teams.”
Acknowledging that the space’s former concept had a very masculine feel, De Laurentiis is looking forward to warming it up with delicate fabrics, red and yellow hues, interior greenery, rose gold counters, local artwork, and vintage posters inspired by her movie-star grandparents.
In addition to the main dining area, the layout will feature a chef’s table near the open kitchen, an outdoor patio in the back, and a circular bar that leads out to the casino floor, which will serve barrel-aged cocktails and international wines. (Look out for De Laurentiis’ favorite Whispering Angel rosé from the Mediterranean Coast.)
“My concern is always, ‘How do I make it so that it’s fun to sit everywhere in this restaurant?” she says. “It’s all about creating different levels and areas with portraits, colors, and themes so that everybody feels comfortable sitting in different areas, not just by the view.”
Another focal point will be a large antipasto workstation just past the host’s stand near the front entrance, where diners will be able to see charcuterie, cheeses, and pastas being prepared.
“I always want the food front and center,” De Laurentiis says. “The best way to draw people into a restaurant is smell and sight—I want them to be able to smell it from the casino floor. At the end of the day, that’s why people romanticize and fall in love with Italian food. We’re very visual, tactile people and we use our senses a lot.”
While the menu is still in its planning stages, executive chef Brian Drosenos—formerly of acclaimed BLT Prime by David Burke in Washington, D.C.—will serve a wide array of pastas, meatballs, antipasti, and local seafood. Though this is De Laurentiis’ first East Coast restaurant—her other two concepts are located in Las Vegas—she is looking forward to sourcing local (think purveyors like Serenity Farms, Roseda Farm beef, and Stone Mill Bakery) and tailoring the menu to the Charm City crowd.
“It’s a bit of a learning experience for me,” she says. “The East Coast flavors aren’t necessarily in my everyday cooking. I use crab, but more in risotto and arancini and other things. So it’s all about still keeping a little of that Italian flair, but also giving people what they’re looking for in this area.”
Getting to know the Baltimore community is something that De Laurentiis says she has enjoyed most about her new venture. Her research has taken her to gems including Dovecote Cafe, and she is planning to visit other staples including Charleston, Woodberry Kitchen, and Dangerously Delicious Pies this week.
“I had never spent much time in Baltimore,” she admits. “And I really hate coming into a city without knowing anything about it. I’m a people person—I really care about who is around and what they’re doing. In a way, you have to understand the people to understand what kind of menu to put out.”
De Laurentiis comes into Horseshoe Casino after the closing of Johnny Sanchez and allegations of sexual harassment against Besh, who stepped down from his restaurant group last fall.
"Hopefully there will be more women that open restaurants around the country right now,” De Laurentiis says. "I just have to make mine successful in order for that to happen. If I fail, it doesn’t help everybody else."
Most of all, she is eager to keep learning more about Baltimore as she continues to put the final touches on the restaurant.
“I think seeing it transform is the coolest thing,” she says. “That’s the most fun. All of the steps along the way make for great storytelling later—that’s what gives me goosebumps.”