The converted 1830s Aquebogue house that houses Il Giardino is 4,000 miles or so from the Palermo farm where chef/owner John Gambino grew up, but that hasn’t stopped him from making it feel like home. When the warm afternoon light streams in, the wraparound dining porch imparts a timeless, southern Italian vibe. Watching Gambino buzz around his Main Road restaurant, chatting up regulars (many of whom followed him from the Hamptons to his first North Fork restaurant), and passing weathered black-and-white family photos en route to the kitchen, it’s clear this is his happy place.
Family is another quintessential southern Italian ingredient. Daughter Maria is the manager and works the front of house, while relatives tend bar, waitress, or fill in as cooks when needed. Girlfriend Claudia handles marketing and social media. It’s almost as if you were invited into Gambino’s lively home for an extended family dinner party.
Farm-to-table is an often-used phrase on the North Fork, but Il Giardino (Italian for “the garden”) kicks that up a notch with its namesake garden- to-table approach.
The all-organic backyard garden is a fragrant and functional cornerstone. Trellises with grapevines arch intimately over tables, so perfectly green that customers think they’re fake, laughs Gambino. There are also fig, lemon, and tangerine trees, not to mention Sicilian Nespoli trees “that make a sweet red fruit.” Closer to the earth are tomato, baby eggplant and cucumber plants, giant planters of fragrant basil, and much more. Chirping birds provide the soundtrack. “Close your eyes and you can think you’re in Italy,” he says. “I have my espresso here in the garden. It feels like home.”
Sicilian food is all about the freshest seasonal ingredients, prepared simply and perfectly, a lesson Gambino learned early on: “On my parents’ farm we had all sorts of fruit trees and vegetables and my parents cooked whatever was fresh.” He paid attention. When he came to America at age 15, with not a word of English, he brought his passion for food with him, cooking family recipes and creating his own.
For this evening’s specials, Gambino was in the garden picking cherry tomatoes and zucchini flowers off the backyard vines, inspecting each one before dropping it in a basket. “It’s a passion,” he says of being such a hands-on chef, even bringing the lemon trees inside his Jamesport home during the North Fork’s very un-Sicilian winter. “If you don’t have the passion, go get another job.”
When not in his own garden, Gambino can be found vegetable-deep in the fields of neighboring Jamesport Farmstead and Bayview Market and Farms, hand-selecting the freshest of the fresh and getting inspiration for daily specials. “I grew up with fava beans in Sicily but never knew that they grew here,” says Gambino. “Then I saw these beautiful fava beans on a farm and incorporated them in specials for a week. People went crazy!”
From the garden to the farms to the kitchen, it’s all documented daily on Instagram and Facebook in photos and narrated video clips, lest anyone doubt this chef’s hands-on commitment. This unofficial John Gambino Social Media Cooking Show offers a behind- the-scenes look into how dishes are constructed, right down to the freshly made mozzarella. His audience eats it up. Literally. “One of my regular customers saw me on Instagram showing that we had zucchini flowers, and then she came out to our garden with me to pick her own for the dish,” he says.
In true Sicilian fashion, Il Giardino is more about fresh ingredients than fancy showmanship.
Home-baked bread sets the tone, and everyone starts with bruschetta and garlic knots. One of the most popular appetizers, baby eggplant, is just that: melt-in-your-mouth baked baby eggplant picked from the garden that day, sliced and baked with fresh tomato and basil. No breading, no cheese.
House favorites include John’s Sicilian Salad, a refreshing medley of seasoned oranges, fennel, green beans, asparagus, potatoes, and olives. In fact, fruit often finds its way into vegetable dishes as per tradition, like a mesclun salad topped with juicy peaches, local goat cheese, and walnuts.
When it comes to the homemade pastas, anyone accustomed to Americanized versions of southern Italian food, often overloaded with cheese and drowning in heavy red sauces, will be pleasantly surprised by Gambino’s light touch. The homemade marinara is simple and bright, with many customers asking if they can purchase jars to take home (they can’t).
The North Fork Paccheri (rectangular tubular pasta) is a vegetarian dish with zucchini, arugula and locally sourced goat cheese, topped with roasted bread crumbs for unexpected crunch. The most nostalgic dish is Nonna Nicoleta’s Lasagna, named after Gambino’s grandmother from a recipe passed down through the generations.
Sicily is an island, so local fare naturally relies heavily on the sea. This isn’t compromised on Long Island. Signature seafood dishes include Pasta Il Giardino, featuring bucatini pasta pesto heaped with locally sourced shrimp and clams. Flavorful fra diavolo sauce can be served with shrimp over linguini or shared on the two-pound lobster dish. For true carnivores, there’s ribeye steak prepared Sicilian style (bread crumbs and parmesan cheese) or sautéed with mushrooms and onions.
Occasionally a diner will have an off-menu request — pasta carbonara, pasta con le sarde. Gambino does everything he can to make them happy, says Maria. “He’s been serving these same guests for over 40 years and a lot have their own dishes that my dad makes for them. He’s also been serving their children and their children’s children, and they’ve known me since I was a baby!”
Italian sorbet is the perfect finish to a warm al fresco day, served in a natural lemon or coconut fruit shell.
Order an Aperol Spritz, the bright orange Italian wine-based cocktail that’s become an Instagram darling, at the indoor or outdoor bar. Then stay till nighttime falls, when the string lights illuminate the garden and the fire pit warms up the already warm atmosphere. It’s the easiest trip to Italy you’ll ever take.