The perfect cup?
Yes, Carmichael! More specifically, Giardino di Caffé in Carmichael—a reader-referred find.
The Todereano family opened Giardino last August. Initially, the family focused on coffee and desserts, but it since has since expanded the menu to include family-generated recipes from the Todereanos’ Northern Italian homeland.
Giardino is not your typical cafe. It’s done up in Old World European flare, with textured walls and Italianate columns and banisters. The antique feel tends to attract an older crowd, in contrast to the contemporary angular designs that today’s kids are all about. The main area is open and expansive. There are not enough tables to fill the space. (According to Alessio Todereano, the cafe’s manager, the family’s saving room for a fountain.) A full, luscious pastry case sits at one end of the counter, and the formidable coffee and espresso station anchors the other.
The menu appears to cater to all times of day. The Todereanos serve baked goods and pastry treats, several types of crepes, panini, pizzas and pastas. You order at the counter, but the food comes to you at your table. Giardino does not offer beer or wine at the moment, but Alessio promised it would have an alcohol license in February.
Now, about the coffee. The family takes coffee seriously because, in Europe, customers won’t come back if your coffee is no good. The family imports roasted beans from two Italian sources: Lavazza and Segafredo—companies that cater to “professional” coffee tastes, Alessio said. The family plans to do some of its own roasting eventually, with imported beans, to satisfy the demand for a darker roast.
Taking a sip of a freshly made cappuccino—decaf, mind you—I found the flavor to be impressively robust and strong. It gave me a slight buzz. Alessio explained that Giardino’s method of cappuccino preparation is different than you’d normally find. The foam does not just sit on top. Rather, it’s integrated with the steamed milk, which makes for a creamier cappuccino.
Of the food, the pizza and pastas are a step beyond what one’s Italian-American palate has come to expect. For instance, the use of dill, green olives and gouda (not all at once) are departures from the usual list of ingredients. Though many of the dishes might sound familiar, Giardino’s cooking style is different from other Italian restaurants. Expect to be a bit surprised.
The Caesar salad, which the kitchen nicely split for us in advance, was a generous portion of fresh, small-cut romaine lettuce, with no limp pieces. It came perfectly dressed with a tangy Caesar and lots of Parmesan. The atypical green olives and slivered almonds worked well, while the thin slices of grilled chicken made the salad a hearty meal.
The rigatoni al forno (baked rigatoni) was a heartily portioned dish of tubular pasta with a mild-looking, vegetable-based red sauce, dubbed Giardinella Romano. The sauce—which gets much of its flavor from green bell peppers—tasted curiously earthy. Green olives and sausage added further interesting notes. Overall, the dish was good, but it was less cohesive (i.e. cheesy) than one would expect from a baked pasta dish. The use of ricotta was modest at best.
The pizza capricciosa, which featured ham, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, black olives and anchovy fillets, came with chewy crust and just a moistening of sauce. The flavor of the rich mozzarella, the delicate ham and the subtle artichoke and mushrooms really came through. The anchovy morsels were used sparingly, but each bit, where detectable, dominated the bite.
In the dessert arena, Giardino truly shined. The cannoli had a biscuity crust, with a fluffy mascarpone filling—a departure from the classic ricotta. A touch of vanilla-almond sauce and a drizzle of chocolate were perfect additions to the fine cannoli specimen. The tiramisu was presented in a substantial slice, with rich layers of mascarpone and a bottom layer of sponge cake drenched in a rich espresso liquid. This version was one of the richest I’ve tasted.
Giardino is a great neighborhood find. Even if you don’t live in Carmichael, it’s worth a stop when you’re in the area. What’s compelling about the place is that the offerings are more adventuresome than your basic Italian fare, so dining there stretches your Italian palate. Also, the cafe’s coffee drinks and desserts are exceptionally satisfying. Thanks to Giardino, the good people of Carmichael should be fat and buzzing in no time.