At Gambino’s Italian Cafe, everyone is family

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Janelle and Chris Johnson stand behind the bar with her daughter Abby Inkens, who works at the King City restaurant full time. Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life
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Has the Mob set up shop in King City, operating out of Gambino’s Italian Cafe? Nope, owners Chris and Janelle Johnson just thought a gangster theme was perfect for their first restaurant venture.

 Tuscan Pork Medallions ($20)
Tuscan Pork Medallions ($20)

With little to no restaurant experience between them, they took a leap of faith last year and started the process of converting the former China Sky restaurant in the King City Plaza into their dream eatery. The restaurant’s namesake – Carlo Gambino, part of a Sicilian Mafia gang – is real, along with other Mob figures whose mugshots adorn the wall behind the bar.

“A gentleman came in with the same last name and had lunch,” said Chris, and Janelle added, “We never asked for permission to use the name, and we hope they never show up.” The “family” theme is further carried out by Chris, who is one of the chefs and uses some family recipes.

Even though the Johnsons both have full-time jobs, they thought they could swing running a restaurant too, and Chris talked to Maggie, the owner of China Sky. She initially said she wasn’t interested in selling her business, called an “asset purchase,” but months later came around. Then followed months of getting licenses and approvals, including from the Oregon Lottery Commission and the City of King City, while the couple “took the place apart” and totally refurbished it before their March 13 opening.

White Wine Lemon Crème Sauce with Penne Pasta and Grilled Marinated Chicken ($19)
White Wine Lemon Crème Sauce with Penne Pasta and Grilled Marinated Chicken ($19)

Acquiring the necessary equipment was part of the journey. The couple started with a tabletop pizza oven and now have a large commercial oven. They drove all over the Northwest looking at and purchasing equipment, and combined with all the physical work of getting the restaurant ready to open, they lost a combined 35 pounds. “I’m glad it didn’t kill us,” Chris said.

He added, “I had massive help from my brother, who has two restaurants in Pacific City. We were blessed to have a lot of help along our journey. And we press our chefs to innovate and try new things. We have reprinted the menu several times.”

The Johnsons were intentional about the atmosphere they wanted to create for both their staff and patrons. “We get a lot of compliments about the warm, comfortable feeling we have created,” Chris said. “We want people to be treated hospitably. And we have created a workplace where everyone is family. New hires are amazed.”

Janelle, whose daughter Abby Inkens works full-time at the restaurant, added, “They said they are not used to being treated like this.”

Deconstructed Cannoli ($12)
Deconstructed Cannoli ($12)

Of course, a new restaurant needs a new logo, and after working unsuccessfully with a graphic artist, Janelle contacted Tigard High School graphic arts teacher Kelli Lafferty, who proposed the project to her students. “When she sent us the final results a few weeks later, we were blown away,” Janelle said. “We sifted through them and sifted through and sifted through and couldn’t settle on one, so we finally picked three.”

The young artists who came up with the winning logos are Lily Ingram, Natalie Church and Jasmine Ventura Romero, and the Johnsons gave them Amazon and restaurant gift cards.

Janelle has spent her whole life in Tigard, graduated from Tigard High School and is now a fourth-grade teacher at Alberta Rider Elementary School. Chris was born and raised in Lake Oswego, although he spent a lot of time in Pacific City and briefly owned a restaurant there. By day, he is a construction estimator for a Tigard business. The pair each had two children when they met 10 years ago while they were both volunteering at a surfing competition in Pacific City.

Three Tigard High School students came up with the logos the Johnsons use at the restaurant - (from left) graduate Jasmine Ventura Romero with the logo used on the menu; senior Lily Ingram with the logo used on the clothes; and senior Natalie Church with the logo used in the video poker area.
Three Tigard High School students came up with the logos the Johnsons use at the restaurant – (from left) graduate Jasmine Ventura Romero with the logo used on the menu; senior Lily Ingram with the logo used on the clothes; and senior Natalie Church with the logo used in the video poker area. Barbara Sherman/Tigard Life

They married, blended their families and shared a love of Italian food. They saw a need for more diversity in Tigard’s restaurant scene and said they hear daily from their customers how happy they are to have a local Italian restaurant.

“We have been incredibly blessed with all of our guests who have become weekly regulars,” Chris said.

Gambino’s Italian Cafe is located in the King City Plaza at 15575 SW 116th Ave., King City. It is open Tues. through Sat. from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., as well as opening Mondays at 4 p.m. with a pizza menu during football season.For more info and the complete menu, visit gambinosic.com or call 503-747-7449.

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