The Complete Package
Carmel’s da Giovanni dazzles on multiple fronts.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
It’s hard to find the right words to describe da Giovanni restaurant in Carmel. To say it’s charming doesn’t differentiate it from 90 percent of restaurants in the area. To mention it’s family-run evokes a welcoming, sociable environment, but there are lots of those about, too. To point out that it has a nice view—well, it does, but there are places with more spectacular vistas.
Synergy. That’s it. That’s what da Giovanni is blessed with. A friend recently called to tell me about it. She described her entire fabulous meal and, embarrassing as it was for one supposedly knowledgeable about the MC food scene, I admitted I hadn’t dined there. I immediately amended the situation.
Da Giovanni’s second-floor location a few blocks from Carmel Beach allows diners a treehouse view through the upper branches of windswept cypress trees, particularly evocative when fog wafts inland. The interior décor feels pleasantly organic, as if its features were added over time, rather than in one contrived swoop of a decorator.
The kitchen is on view behind a large window and one wall is partially covered with wine crates. On another wall, a nearly life-sized mural of a café terrace on a cliff above a sea takes me right to Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
The house was full on a Wednesday evening. Except for a group from Italy, it appeared to be mostly locals—businessmen, couples, friends. Our waitress Cori, the niece of owner Firok Shield, is an ideal spokesperson for the restaurant. She obviously cares about it and is passionate about her favorite dishes. All are “family recipes from my uncle’s mother and grandmother,” she explained. In fact, Shield’s two daughters, Kelly and Kate, are manager and waitress, respectively.
The wine list primarily features California, Tuscan and Super Tuscan wines. My guest and I ordered a half bottle of 2001 Chianti Classico, Coltibuono “Roberto Stucchi” for $19. It’s made by the great-great-grandson of the founder of Badia a Coltibuono in Gaiole in Chianti, makers of one of my favorite Chianti wines.
This wine reminds me of so many rustic Italian wines: drinkable, delightful and affordable. It doesn’t achieve the same high standard as the 2000 Badia a Coltibuono Chianti, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a deal.
Warm bread from Seaside’s Palermo Bakery, and spicy, garlicky black olives contented us while we perused the menu. Corie insisted we try the Greek salad ($7.95) and now I’m insisting that you try it. The fresh feta cheese, the well-chopped ingredients, and the non-traditional dried cranberries have apparently flung this salad into local fame. Due to the fine chopping, every bite has every ingredient (the above, plus cucumber, red onion, ripe tomatoes, and Kalamata olives).
Shield’s mother is Sicilian and Greek. The menu reflects this, with a breeze of flavors blowing in from across the sea in North Africa and from his paternal homeland, Turkey. Most of the recipes are Italian, some are Greek, and some, such as the stuffed grape leaves entrée, are interpreted through a regional, multicultural, and personal prism.
The stuffed grape leaves come with either of two fillings, and are served with a yogurt sauce ($8.95). One is lamb, mint and pine nuts, the other is arborio rice and roasted vegetables. I tried the lamb and it was tasty, hearty and nicely presented—definitely recommended.
The memory of the pasta with about 10 small filet mignon meatballs ($22.95) is almost as good as the original experience. The “southern Mediterranean” red sauce is all spicy flavor—a tad creamy, with a subtle aura of those exotic North African winds. The meatballs were moist and balanced with flavor. I highly recommend this dish; it’s a special, but nearly always available.
The halibut wrapped in filo dough ($24.95) that my guest had was a bit lackluster. One of a few signature dishes, it might appeal to a more mild-mannered palate than mine. On a second visit, we shared the Osso Buco ($19.95)—braised lamb shank over cous cous pasta with carrots, onions, celery, sweet anise and tomato. This defines good comfort food with a tender, well-blended richness and a heaping portion.
Other items on my to-try list are vegetarian mousaka ($15.95)—eggplant layered with Parmigiano cheese in a tomato sauce topped with béchamel—and rigatoni with broccoli and homemade Italian sausage (also $15.95).
It seemed fitting to try one of the two Italian desserts on the menu, ricotta cheesecake or tiramisu (both $6.95). I accommodated a chocolate-loving man with the tiramisu. It was fresh and creamy, just as it should be, and rivals any.
Cori brought us a complimentary glass of port with dessert “because you’re locals and it’s your first time here.” It’s nice when neighbors take care of neighbors. I’ll be back—for the whole comfortable, enjoyable package.
Upstairs in the Cortile San Remo, Lincoln between Fifth and Sixth, Carmel • From 5pm daily • 626-5800.