Vacation rentals in Italy (villas, farms, estates, agriturismo, apartments)
Under €40 Crowd - Il Giardino
Diana Strinati Baur
I love restaurants with less than ten tables. It's a passion of mine. When one of our winery friends told us about Il Giardino, a teeny spec of a place in Melazzo (directly outside of Acqui Terme) several years ago, and explained where it was, I had to admit that I had driven by it about a million times but that it looked so, well, humble from the outside that we never thought of actually going inside.
Never judge a libro by its cover, my friends.
To understand Il Giardino, you first have to know its owners. Piero, who works front of house, is a beekeeper by day. His sister Carla is in the kitchen. These are lovely, kind, humble people who serve food that's, well, nourishing, in the purist sense of the word. And they do it in a way that makes you feel like you are part of their family.
The restaurant is a clean, cheerful room with lovely white and red-checkered linens. Spotless, warm and inviting would be an apt description.
The menu changes nightly, while certain things rotate with the season. For example, if you go in May or early June, you are likely to find batter dipped and fried elderflowers as an appetizer. By summer those have turned to zucchini flowers. One of my favorite early fall antipasti is tuna pate with raspberry sauce. The creamy terrine balances nicely with the acidity of the berries.
You cannot go wrong with anything really. Carla makes the ravioli plin by hand as is so common here, and a drizzle of gravy from roasted veal makes the perfect sauce. That's normally Micha's favorite primo, while I gravitate toward the Bold and the Butt Enhancing. Yes, gnocchi smothered in a delicate cheese sauce made from Robbiola di Roccaverano. In the fall, Carla makes a Zuppa di Cippole that I think should be declared illegal. It's made from a puree of roasted red onions and light cream is heavily involved in the scene of the crime.
As a secondo, a regular go-to is Arrosto di Vitello, slow roasted veal, sliced tableside and served with vegetables from the Piero's garden. During the late fall, I might opt for fresh porcini, roasted in parchment with potatoes and thyme. And in the summer, I might go for thinly sliced cold roast beef with pickled vegetables.
A recommendation for dessert: if you don't order their hazelnut cake, which is served warm and has hardly any flour in it, you are nuts. Okay, let me qualify that. You are not nuts if instead you order the crostata of the day; Carla makes her crostata crust out of semolina flour and butter, and the filling might be raspberry jam or lemon curd.
All the while, Piero is filling your glass with something very local. He doesn't have an extensive wine list, choosing instead to favor a few wines that directly relate to the food - a local dolcetto or barbera, either touched with wood or not, depending. And some brachetto for dessert. Just listen to his recommendations and take whatever he says, because even if you are a wine geek, you're bound to be very happy with his suggestion.
And you will be even happier when you get your bill. It's more than one Slow Traveler that came home from Il Giardino thinking that Piero made a mistake with the pricing, and not in the restaurant's favor. You can expect to pay around €30 for four courses, including wine. Considering you are eating food out of someone's garden that has been individually prepared, that's pretty fabulous.
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