Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 16, 2021

Leonard’s latest, Giardino, certainly worth return visit

The lasagna con bechamel at Giardino is made with Bolognese, mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan. - Photo provided

New grills, fusion joints and ethnic diners open like clockwork in Chattanooga and rarely fail to capture the attention of the perpetually famished public. But nothing spikes the interest of local foodies like a new Italian restaurant.

At least that’s what I gathered as my dinner companion and I pulled up to Giardino during its first Friday night in business. Word had spread like grapes on a fertile vine about the new pastaria, and every parking spot was occupied.

The inside was full, too, which I took as a good sign.

Giardino is the creation of local restaurateur Jake Leonard, whose resume includes turns at St. John’s, Easy Bistro and Il Primo – three highly regarded local eateries.

Also on board is executive chef Oscar Ixcot, who met Leonard while cooking at Il Primo. When Leonard decided to open his own place, Ixcot agreed to create the menu and Giardino was born.

Although Giardino is new, the building is not. Nestled along the edge of Missionary Ridge on Westside Drive, the aging structure has housed a number of restaurants over the years – although it’s never looked as festive from the outside as it does now, especially after dark, when dozens of soft lights draw diners to its tree-lined patio.

As we waited for a table, our attention was on the interior, which is surprisingly expansive, given the modest size of the storefront. The ample room between tables suggests Leonard might have resisted the temptation to cram his establishment with tables, but instead focused on providing a relaxing atmosphere where everyone feels like they have a space of their own.

I imagine having room to breathe only enhances the aromas and flavors of a glass of Giardino’s wine.

However, there was nothing in the air – or on the walls – to suggest Giardino is an Italian restaurant. Since it’s new and the coat of olive-green paint is likely fresh, it lacks the baked-in smell of Boccaccia on Broad Street, for example, or Tony’s Pasta Shop on High Street.

The pictures of herbs on the walls, while attractive, also feel generic.

But I can’t imagine anyone seated at a table or waiting near the door cared about any of that, because Italian restaurants don’t need authentic décor to establish credibility, they just have to serve delicious platefuls of the definitive comfort food.

The menu is where Giardino is striving to make a name for itself. Using produce and proteins sourced from small farms, Ixcot has crafted a menu that could extend the waiting time in the lobby as people try to choose the best possible meal from the restaurant’s ostensibly appetizing selections.

Beginning with the antipasti and extending through the pasta, insalata and secondi, Giardino offers several selections under each heading.

The antipasti menu features familiar favorites like bruschetta and fried calamari, along with an adventurous-sounding arrosto di maiale, which consists of Niman Ranch pork loin, sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, pine nuts and gorgonzola.

There are no easy decisions to make here. If you’re reading this, I hope you’re well-heeled, ravenously hungry and can bring more than one guest because you’re going to want to try everything.

The pasta menu only makes things harder. From the chicken Alfredo to the shrimp and polenta, you might make quicker time with “War and Peace” as you read and then reread the ingredients in an effort to choose.

One thing that could speed up your decision is knowing the source of the protein for each dish. Fortunately, the menu includes this information in the descriptions.

For example, while Springer Mountain Farms in Baldwin, Georgia, provides the chicken, the ground beef in the pappardelle Bolognese comes from Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the shrimp arrives from the “gulf.”

The breadth of sources suggests Ixcot pulled each protein from what he considers to be the best supplier from as close to home as possible. (Colorado-based Niman Ranch might be Giardino’s most distant source of meat.)

My dinner companion grew up eating in New York City homes in which pure-blooded Italians cooked authentic food and taught her to make chicken parmesan, chicken piccata and other dishes from the motherland. So, despite me thinking she would have trouble deciding, she picked the chicken parmesan without hesitation.

“Please be good, please be good, please be good,” she pleaded to food she’d not yet ordered.

I might take some heat for my selection, but when I saw a server walk past our table with a plate of Nonna’s spaghetti and meatballs, I was sold. Maybe I should have tried the lasagna con bechamel, the rigatoni al gorgonzola or another equally hard-to-pronounce dish, but in that moment, I couldn’t imagine a more gratifying meal.

We also ordered a plate of bruschetta. Consisting of heirloom cherry tomatoes, a blend of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses and a balsamic reduction over a grilled ciabatta, it was delicious.

We try the bruschetta at every Italian restaurant we visit, and I’ve never tasted anything like the ricotta-mozzarella blend. It truly is unique to Giardino.

Our only disappointment was the size of the portions in relation to their cost. For the price, we agreed there should have been six bruschette on the plate instead of four.

Portions were not an issue with the chicken parmesan, which includes two generous breasts baked in bread crumbs, mozzarella and marinara. Unfortunately, the flavor did fall short of my companion’s expectations.

While the marinara earned her approval, the coating, which she described as flavorless, did not.

Surprised, I repeated her pre-meal mantra as I speared a meatball and then twirled a few strands of Giardino’s housemade pasta around my fork.

“Please be good, please be good, please be good,” I said, clinging to my optimism.

And it was good, although I had expected the meatballs to be more savory.

All that said, take our reactions with a grain of salt. There are many other dishes to try at Giardino, and other people have raved about food. I’ve heard especially good things about veal Marsala.

If you do visit Giardino, here’s a pro tip: If your server doesn’t bring you bread and oil or grated Parmesan cheese, ask for them, as they are available.

Giardino is open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5-9:30 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5-10 p.m. Sunday is everyone’s day off.

They earn it, as Leonard and the staff he’s assembled evidently work hard to create a satisfying culinary experience. Although our entrées were underwhelming, if the answer to “What do you want for dinner?” is ever “Giardino,” I’ll be the first one in the car.