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RESTAURANTS : STILL BLOOMING : It Isn't Much of a Garden, but Il Giardino Has Always Been an Oasis of Great Italian Food

April 18, 1993|Charles Perry

Nine years ago, people flocked to a nondescript Beverly Hills residential neighborhood to dine in a plain room furnished with patio chairs and Astroturf. They came to Il Giardino because they'd never been able to get Italian food like this before: Steak sliced and aggressively flavored with herbs, raw salmon marinated with celery leaves, pricey lobster paired with humble white beans.

This was the kind of food you might really get in Italy, not at all what Angelenos then believed Italian food should be, and Il Giardino permanently changed our way of thinking about Italian cuisine. But then its season passed--or more exactly, most of the employees, including chef Agostino Sciandri, seemed to leave and start their own places--and L.A. rather neglected Il Giardino. But it survived, partly because the film people came to think of it as their own little club.

The place does have the civilized air of a quiet old club, complete with waiters--especially Rudolfo, who has been there forever--who take obvious pleasure in coddling the diner. While the furnishings are still the same, much of the original menu is long gone. Nevertheless, you still start your meal with pinzimonio , that big bowl of Italian crudites with balsamic vinaigrette that turned into an L.A. Italian restaurant staple. You can proceed with an ultra-Italian salad of raw baby artichoke sliced thin with big flakes of Parmesan (it could use a little bit more vinaigrette) or a soup, such as an earthy lentil-and-prosciutto model, or even the now-familiar insalata tricolore (arugula, endive and radicchio). Even better are the outstanding verdure alla griglia , whose grilled peppers, radicchio, endive, eggplant, mushrooms, asparagus and tomato exude sweet juices and a rough, smoky aroma.

You can still get a sampler of three pastas, and the gnocchi are still about the most delicate in town. The menu lists gnocchi with a strongly basil-flavored pesto sauce, but if you just ask, you can also get them in Gorgonzola sauce, an unworldly experience at once rich, light and funky. Linguine Adelmo is another light pasta dish, with shrimp, arugula and ricotta. But these days you do have to order carefully, or you might find yourself with an excessively plain special of pappardelle noodles with zucchini.

All the risottos have good, smooth texture, but risotto scampi, with its red-pepper-and-tomato flavoring, is disturbingly more like a paella than a risotto. Risotto con porcini has a good porcini flavor, but outside fresh porcini season, the mushrooms are likely to be frozen rather than dried, with a slithery texture some people hate. (The same is true of the porcini on the beef steak, filetto con porcini .)

The waiter might modestly insist that pasta, rather than meat, is Italy's strength, but Il Giardino makes dazzling saltimbocca alla romana , with the veal scallop pounded plate-size and almost paper-thin, topped with prosciutto, a hint of Fontina cheese and a zappy garlic-and-fresh-sage sauce. Every dull, heavy saltimbocca in town should hang its head. The veal chop ( nodino di vitello ) is very tender, appetizingly sprinkled with rosemary and thyme. However, I'll always be a little suspicious of one chef's specials (there are three chefs these days), having tried salmon with tomatoes and olives (what a thing to do with salmon) and rollantini di pollo , three perfectly cooked cabbage rolls with a filling of laboriously pureed chicken that tastes almost exactly like Spam.

The desserts are old friends: cheesecake in very short pastry, with raisins and pine nuts; a fruit tart with strawberries and kiwi slices resting on lots of pastry cream; a chocolate tart, like chocolate pudding in pie crust. The tirami su is very moist and light, more pudding-like than most.

Supposedly, Il Giardino is to be torn down for an office building, though this is not imminent. The owner has promised that when the new building does go up, Il Giardino will be part of it, and I believe him. It's a survivor.

Il Giardino, 9235 W. 3rd St., Beverly Hills; (310) 275-5444. Lunch served Monday through Saturday, dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $44-$88. Lunch for two, food only, $40-$54.

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