Il Giardino Restaurant by John Gambino
739 Main Rd. (Route 25), Aquebogue
AMBIENCE: Cozy house, lots of noise
ESSENTIALS: Open for dinner six days, from 4 p.m. Closed Monday. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. Ramp and one step at entrance. Tight dining areas
John Gambino is the constant gardener of Il Giardino, which has sprouted where Petulant Wino once poured.
You’ll quickly identify the vintage house by the wine barrels outside. They’ve been turned into signage that spells “bistro.” Before Petulant Wino uncorked here, this was the address of the short-lived Comtesse Thérèse Bistro.
Gambino, formerly a decades-long partner in Baby Moon in Westhampton Beach, has headed to the North Fork along with William Londono, who was chef there.
Their new spot, in the handsomely appointed, 1830 building, emphasizes familiar southern Italian and Italian-American favorites, prepared with care and occasional flair.
The two cozy dining rooms are soft on the eyes, with apropos artwork of heirloom tomatoes and a very big lobster. But all the woodwork allows voices to ricochet everywhere. Even when Il Giardino isn’t packed, it can be noisy. A table for 10 sounds like a raucous convention.
Mostly, however, Gambino and Londono keep things moving along with an upbeat style that allows you to forget some of the frequent lapses in service. Full tables lead to overwhelmed staff.
Once the seafood salad arrives, you’ll focus on a generous platter that adds nuggets of octopus to the calamari and scungilli, the shrimp and mussels. An ample portion of fried calamari, perfectly crisp, competes with it.
“John’s Sicilian salad” is a refreshing, well-dressed alternative, with oranges, fennel, olives and more. And the house’s tricolor number tastefully unfurls under broad shavings of Parmesan cheese. Ripe, sweet tomatoes pair with house-made mozzarella and ribbons of red onion, as if summer is making an early appearance. Long slices of baked baby eggplant with bright tomato sauce and basil deliver a homey touch.
Il Giardino excels with pastas. Paccheri, akin to oversize rigatoni, are boosted by zucchini, arugula and tangy goat cheese. White beans and escarole give orecchiette a rustic, hearty flavor. Lighter and to the point is the local spinach fettuccine with olive oil and garlic. But bucatini is entangled with stemmy broccoli rabe.
Lasagna: lush, rich, with meat and cheese. Turn even more nostalgic with spaghetti and a couple of very meaty meatballs. If you’re inclined, Il Giardino does turkey meatballs, too. And you’ll find a textbook chicken Parmigiana, which improves on the overly breaded eggplant version.
Chicken Milanese shows up sufficiently crisp and capped with a satisfying chopped salad. You’ll have to hunt around for a better chicken alla cacciatora. The rib-eye steak, with a crunchy breadcrumb crust, is tender and juicy.
Shrimp fra diavolo deftly balances the heat with a trace of sweetness in the sauce. So does the assortment of seafood set similarly on linguine.
In this company, flounder oreganata may seem bland. But it’s splashingly fresh and good. Grilled tuna, while ordered rare, materializes closer to medium and surprisingly dull, masked by a coverlet of mushrooms and onions.
Nothing new for dessert. Just-filled cannoli, with chocolate chips, are far too dolce. The Italian-style cheesecake is on the dry side.
But it’s early in the season. Fresh strawberries are on the way, and peaches and blueberries will beckon by late July. Maybe Gambino or Londono will come up with a signature sweet.