Giardino Restaurant

Giardino is a handsome restaurant (with its own parking lot; a plus) where one goes for Italian food in a very traditional mode. There's no pretense here; the entire staff are consummate professionals, all smiling, and dedicated to making the guest feel comfortable. The food ain't bad at all, either, and is a great value in this age of tiny portions and $60 steaks it's genuinely hard to find service, quality and value all at one location.

The hamlet of Douglaston, New York (east of Little Neck on Long Island), although bisected by busy Douglaston Parkway, has always had a charm about it that the surrounding towns lack. We drove around and noted some changes in the neighborhood, but the lovely street that Giardino is on hasn't changed. A Mecca for locals seeking fine Italian food, Giordano's occupies the corner of a street which in a single block has a very good Italian market, as well as a great Italian bakery, too.

The Giardino staff, two of whom greeted us like old friends, are part of a dying breed; restaurant professionals. Captain, waiters, servers and busboys all work as a team, and are empowered to attend to any of your needs. This is a fine policy. (At most other restaurants, if one asks a busboy for anything other than more ice-water or more coffee, they typically run to get the waiter.) Our waiter on a recent Wednesday evening was amazing. He anticipated our needs, almost telepathically, after a brief discussion of what we wanted to eat.

The wine list is value priced and contains some very popular (mundane) selections but also some nicely-priced Italian wines that are very appropriate and very good. Their house Chianti is surprisingly satisfying. Disappointing is that there's not a bottle of Amarone to be found anywhere. With food this good, it'd be nice if they chose to stock that most precious of Italian wines.

An appetizer of Mozzarella en Carozza (hard to find these days - basically a fancy grilled cheese sandwich with anchovy paste and occasionally marrow sauce) was superbly prepared, although here a red sauce substitutes for the usual brown. On another visit a simple Sicilian Salad (like Caesar; add olives, tomatoes, prosciutto and sharp provolone) was delectable, and not drowned in dressing. Restraint is one of the kitchen's finer attributes. They have a shrimp cocktail which includes lump crabmeat as well, and offer, beside traditional red seafood sauce, a scrumptious lemon zabaglione (not sweet, mind you) which is like a cloud of Heavenly lemon goodness; a good foil for the richness of the perfectly-prepared chilled seafood. It's enough for two and is only $12.

Pastas are widely varied and a great value. Perfectly-cooked fettucine in Bolognese sauce was rich and delicious (and abundant; prepare to take doggie bags home). Another evening the linguine di mare (linguine with all manner of strictly fresh seafood, including a half lobster) was a $27 pasta course I would've paid twice that for and been just as happy. I look forward to being able to try their traditional "Sunday Sauce;" their version which contains the usual sauteed and then slow-cooked meats in tomato sauce. However, true to Italian tradition, it's only served Sundays.

On our most recent visit colossal scallops oreganata, (a special highly recommended by the server) had been broiled with a complex, reduced sauce and olive oil. The restraint in using strong flavors again was what turned this dish from "good" to "fabulous." The scallops could not have been more fresh, and their delectably delicate flavor shone through the simple, light sauce and dusting of breadcrumbs that topped the scallops. For qualification's sake, I rarely appreciate oregano as a spice; however I knew from experience with the restaurant's other dishes that the oregano contained in this dish would be the fresh kind (the dried spice has no use in my kitchen) and would be used sparingly. It was perfect.

The delightfully-cooked veal chop was tender and juicy. We felt guilty that it was only $34. I'm used to paying quite a bit more for a generous, thick, perfectly cooked chop.

All vegetables are fresh and pristine. You must get the broccoli rabe sauteed with lots of garlic. It's just heaven. They get the texture and color perfect; not an easy accomplishment.

Lighter fare is available also. We've not tried their brick-oven pizza but the herbed baked pizza dough in our breadbasket was exquisite. We noticed on each visit at least one table enjoying the pizza as an appetizer or a meal.

Espresso (with the house anisette; a little sweet for my taste; but compliments of our server) is done right and whisked to the table. Dessert offerings were short and sweet (pardon the pun). Homemade tiramisu on one occasion was just fabulous. We have yet to try the cannolis, also homemade.  Cheescake, well, after a generous meal it's a bit much; perhaps that's why we found it lackluster but authentic nonetheless.

If pre- or post- dinner cocktails are your bag, the handsome bar is well-stocked and the staff there genuinely friendly. Drinks are generous and priced fairly.

On one's way out, I guarantee someone (perhaps more than one person) will genuinely inquire about your satisfaction. On our most recent visit, it was Michael, the restaurant's general manager.

A word about ambience. Don't come here if you're looking for halogen lighting, granite tabletops, fashionable linens or sponge-painted wall treatments. The hand-painted Italian murals on the walls are a little "busy." Wrought iron decorations abound; the "rustic" feel is emphasized a bit too much in our opinion. There are even coach light-style wall sconces with amber lamps in them; harkening back to when many Italian restaurants decorated in this fashion. It could be a bit darker in the dining room. It's spotlessly clean, however. The table appointments are fabulous, not clunky. Wineglasses, in particular, are paper-thin and, after a pre-dinner cocktail, somewhat spooky to hold. Our toasts were amazingly restrained, in such horror were we that the lovely wine glasses crack like eggshells when impacted with one another.

Regarding overall quality; suffice it to say that this place is worth a trip from Manhattan. Each experience has been memorable. Would that more restaurants paid this much attention to service, quality and tradition. The restaurant is open 7 days and offers generous hours for those who care to dine late.

Because of the convenience of the pastry shop and Italian market; I used to make a stop for lunch at Giardino's before enduring the long drive out to The Hamptons. It was convenient in that I could buy meats, cheeses and pastries for my hosts but enjoy a great meal before going food shopping. I'll not bore you with my own version of what happens to me when I go food shopping when hungry. Anyone who digs cooking will be all too familiar with what happens.

The restaurant is owned by the Russo family, of the famous Russo's by the Bay Catering Hall in Howard Beach, Queens. They have another restaurant, as well, in Howard Beach.

44-37 Douglaston Parkway
Douglaston, NY  11363
(718) 428-1090

UPDATE 2/23/08: Giordino's manager, Michael, sent a lovely email saying he was grateful for the support. I responded that we'd continue going out of our way to experience this fabulous place. I let them know in another /msg that the noder demographic, you know, so few noders are *anywhere near* this place. This is the kinda place I'd get a car service take me out there and then back to Manhattan, however. Anyone who comes into Kennedy airport, you *must* go farther out on the island first, failure to go a few minutes' out of one's way to this eatery is a sin!

UPDATE 9/17/08: Every Wednesday is now "Pizza Night." For a prix fixe one gets a pizza, calzone, and a chance to graze among the delights of a cold appetizer table. Sadly, we opted out of the most incredible deal this restaurant has ever offered, and stuck to less carbohydrate-based items due to dietary restrictions on this visit. The mussels in red sauce were pristine and delightful, as usual. Caesar salad was particularly good, (we could tell the richness was not from mayonnaise but from egg yolks); they didn't spare the Reggiano Parmesan.

I don't think I bothered to tell you that this pizza and the calzones are made in a wood-fired oven. We brought home some topping-less pizza ("focaccia") that my wife enjoyed very much. We also brought back two quarts of their superb Marinara sauce because the trip to the restaurant is two hours from home in Connecticut.

On the way out, our eyes opened like saucers when we saw all of our favorite cold appetizers laid out in huge platters on a multi-level serving display, awaiting the side-dishes of the pizza and calzone lovers. Prosciutto, good cheeses, fruit, and salads were in abundance.

There's one problem with pizza night. How can we possibly justify eating that many calories when we could opt, as we did that night, for much lighter seafood fare? Easy choice right now but we're sure that the pizza, calzones and attractive array of hors d'oeuvres will be singing its siren song to us soon enough.

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