Garden of Delights
Il Giardino Pleases With Old-Fashioned Italian
This location is closed
Sometimes I find myself liking a restaurant in spite of myself. At first glance, there was little to recommend Il Giardino (8809 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City,  461-1122). Or so I thought as we pulled off busy Route 40 into the parking lot, on one of those late-winter nights when the sky insists on dumping cold rain mixed with sleet. We made a run for it, wondering what sort of dining experience we were in for.
Oh god, I thought as C.C. and I glanced around. Flashback to the '50s: pale green walls, pale green upholstery, tiny white Christmas lights, and more plastic grapevines than I ever want to see in one place again. A quick run-through of the menu confirmed my worst fears. Everything sounded leaden, old-fashioned, bound to leave you logy. And yet, time warp notwithstanding, we had a delightful meal. I suppose that's why diners continued arriving throughout the dreary evening, sharing the glassed-in garden room with us or fanning out into the bilevel main dining area.
C.C. was hungry and went, as she always does in such circumstances, for instant succor with soup. Her cup of minestrone ($3.75) was a hearty variation on a traditional theme, with a good tomato-y broth and vegetables that weren't cooked to mush. Spoon in one hand, slice of intense garlic bread ($3.75 for an order) in the other, she eased into a relaxed smile.
I decided to go with the old-school flow and ordered clams casino ($7.75). It's a dish I used to like but don't order anymore, because everyone seems to have forgotten how to do it right. Usually, the clams taste like rubber, the topping is mush, the bacon either burnt or raw. What a pleasure, then, when our server slid in front of me a rock-salt-lined plate hosting six large clams, each lightly topped with breadcrumbs and a square of perfectly cooked bacon. Simplicity itself. The clams were so tender I persuaded my love to try one. (Never hog the aphrodisiacs.) She, not overly fond of clams, was also pleasantly surprised.
Entrées come with salad, a big bowl of mostly iceberg lettuce with some pepperoncini and good kalamata olives tossed in a light Italian dressing. Refreshing, but little more than a palate cleanser for the hearty dishes to come. C.C. chose the interesting-sounding Gamberi Riviera ($18.95), shrimp sautéed in a "veil" of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic butter, and dry vermouth. The "veiled" shrimp, six of them, were large and not overcooked, and the sauce was redolent with garlic and vermouth. A bed of angel-hair pasta helped soak up the dregs. Not a heavy dish, but fully satisfying.
A mix of familiar favorite and intriguing Continental twist informed my choice, a dish called Crespelle alla Besciamella ($16.95), crepes stuffed with spinach, ricotta, and sausage and topped with béchamel sauce. I'm a sucker for heavenly béchamel, the sauce invented by an investor. Louis de Béchamel, a financier in the court of Louis XIV, had a lot of francs invested in the Newfoundland cod fisheries. Trouble was, the French didn't like the taste of cod. Rather than watch his investment go down the drain, de Béchamel whipped up a little cream sauce, tossed in a bit of nutmeg, and changed the tastes of a nation. French folks started pouring it over their cod, and other dishes as well. I too love its foamy richness. Plus, I was intrigued by the thought of Italian crepes. I was in for a treat.
The lacy little pancakes themselves were light and luscious. Two of them were wrapped around the filling, nestled in an individual casserole dish, topped with the béchamel, and baked. The mildly flavored sausage had been fried first, to release the grease, so the predominant flavors were the abundant fresh spinach and the sauce. What I feared would be a heavy dish wasn't at all.
Many of Il Giardino's desserts come from Deereco Desserts, in Timonium, and the ones we tried were stunners. We deliberated sharing something called Sweetheart St. Honore ($6), alluringly described as a puff-pastry shell filled with a white-chocolate-lime mousse enhanced by caramel-crème puff and fresh berries. How could we pass that up? Only for something called Délice of Mango and Wild Strawberries ($6.50). It arrived in the form of a round tower bound in a thin cake shell. The bottom was a layer of pistachio meringue. Next came a layer of strawberry (wild or tame, I couldn't tell) mousse, topped by the mango mousse, then a thin mango-flavored glaze. The dense meringue, heavy with pistachios, provided both a taste and a texture contrast with the ethereal mousses? We ate it, lingeringly, down to the last morsel.
We eased back, sipping coffee, feeling well fed and dreamy, listening to Italian music and the pinging of freezing rain on the glass ceiling of the garden room. So content was I, even those plastic grapevines were starting to look good.
Open 5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday.