The charming yellow house that was home to Il Giardino for nearly four decades closed up in 2013, but just down the block its successor, Giardino, has recently opened its doors. Giardino’s resurrection marks the return of star chef/owner Umberto Menghi to Vancouver, and with it a new chapter in high-end Italian fare in a sumptuous setting.
Giardino’s exterior is fairly nondescript, but the first sign not everything from the past is merely memory comes in the form of the old Il Giardino sign that hangs in the new restaurant’s front window. Menghi says dropping “Il” was strategic: Would-be patrons looking up the restaurant often bypassed the “il” in the first place, so Giardino it is.
The name means garden, but Menghi explains that the decor is inspired by a Tuscan “granaio” or granary, a place for storing food in his home country. Vibrant, earthy tones infuse the dining area with warmth and a sense of coziness, and the walls are bedecked with charming touches, like framed drawings and artwork that help tell the origin story of Giardino–the 2015 edition. Make no mistake, though, this is a big restaurant: There are 160 interior seats, and room for another 80 on the patio.
High ceilings, ornate chandeliers, a wine room, an open kitchen, and a welcoming courtyard patio area are all part of how Menghi is bringing a bit of his Tuscany to Vancouver.
Menghi also notes that the “DNA” of the restaurant is largely the same thanks to many of his loyal staff joining him for the Vancouver reboot. It’s worth noting that many of Il Giardino’s former staff have continued on to have successful Canadian culinary careers, including local legends David Hawksworth (apprentice/commis in late 1990s) and Pino Posteraro (GM/Executive Chef in the late 1990s).
At the new Giardino there is a more expansive menu than that of its predecessor, thanks to the raw bar option and more choices for “crudo” dishes. Diners can easily see the glowing flames of the oven, and the chefs using the wooden paddle to whisk toasty flatbreads in and out.
A handmade pasta dish, like the sumptuous and sweetly oceanic Spaghetti Al Nero Di Seppia (with Atlantic lobster and a cherry tomato sauce), nods to both the ability of Menghi and crew to truly wow with their artisanship and also how pointedly elevated a pasta can in fact be. The artistry extends to dreamy warm-weather meal starters like the gorgeous salad of burrata, raw zucchini ribbons, cherry tomatoes, baby arugula, and pomegranate, or the near-translucent slivers of fish adorned with grapefruit from the crudo offerings.
There are still dishes on the new Giardino menu that pack more heft, like a fried calamari appetizer (which boasts calamari so impossibly tender it seems almost unreal) or the built-for-two whopping 36-ounce Porterhouse Fiorentina, which is seasoned simply and grilled to perfection, thought not for the faint of heart–this showstopper comes to the table with the bone up-ended and stripped bare, with the slices of beef heaped on the plate. Carne!
Much like the pre-main course calamari’s tenderness, the beautiful cannoli at dessert comes in a shell so fresh and crisp it puts most other cannoli shells to shame. And their pistachio macaron may make you question whether or not you meant to declare the macaron was a tired trend, thanks to its perfectly yielding texture and light, sweet taste.
It’s good to have Menghi back in Vancouver, and his version of Tuscany tucked into a more outwardly modest spot on Hornby. With many new restaurants aiming to restore a bit of the “white tablecloth” sensibility of fine dining on the Vancouver food scene, Giardino is more than doing its part to represent the flavours and foods of Italy with refinement and panache.
Address: 1328 Hornby Street