Take a left at the giant lemon. You may not be familiar with Lemon Grove’s elephantine citrus in the heart of town. You may not be familiar with the city in east San Diego at all. Most San Diegans are huddled in the areas surrounding Downtown, or on the coast, or reclused into the stucco warmth of north county’s suburban bosom. At some point, driving east, most of us say 'ok, that’s far enough,' and we turn around.
But San Diego has an east county. And more and more of us, in an attempt to outrun the murderous cost of living, are heading that way. Musicians, artists, all sorts of non-millionaires. And those people need culture. Mostly, stylish places to eat good food and drink. And now Lemon Grove has one hell of a hidden gem in Giardino Neighborhood Cucina. Chef Marco Provino is from southern Italy. Words roll off his tongue like rain off a boot. He’s hard to understand at times, which makes the food taste better and more Italian.
The restaurant is understatedly charming, with giant floral wallpaper his wife imported from Italy, and an entire chalk wall scrawled with food sayings ("Life is short, eat dessert first"). There’s an orange vintage moped in the middle of the wide-open room, and a glassed-in private dining table. It looks like a place you’d find in Little Italy, or more notoriously hip neighborhoods.
The menu is affordable, with $5 bruschettas, $10 stuffed mushrooms (with crab meat, roasted bell pepper, onion, bread crumbs, parmesan, baked with herbs in a white wine sauce), pizzas in the $12-$17 range, and housemade pastas all under $20. And the food—prepared in the southern Italian style with simple ingredients, not a flood of tomato sauce, and easy on the parmesan—is good to fantastic.
With food being so much about discovery these days, Giardino is worth discovering. It’s a gem for any neighborhood, but in a culinarily underserved area like Lemon Grove, it’s a distinct revelation.
Here are a few exceptional standouts I tried:
Perfect, creamy, garlicky, bathing in olive oil and parmesan.
A 14-ounce boneless New York, bread-crusted and grilled. Why is this eggplant the most delicious eggplant I’ve ever tasted? Incredible.
Many food people will tell you that truffle oil is for the birds. I am not one of those people, and I believe they need professional help. Many people will also tell you that a true risotto will never include cream. I can get behind that statement, but I don’t care if this is not a true risotto. It’s an incredibly rich and delicious "not risotto." Rice cooked al dente with wild mushrooms, brandy cream sauce, truffle oil, and mascarpone cheese.