Just inside the door of the new Italian Gardens restaurant in Little Italy, on the gold, green and faded red Art Deco-style terrazzo marble floor, is a big crack.
The crack remains from the time in 1934 that someone dropped a bomb into the Italian Gardens nightclub and blew the front to bits.
The club was to open as a post-Prohibition speakeasy the next night, but the blast — likely connected to the murder of one of the city's most infamous bootleggers — put an end to that. Instead, it opened as a restaurant a few months later.
The damage is a reminder that the Italian Gardens of Omaha has quite a storied past, owner Jeff Camp told me.
During two recent visits, I found at least a little of what might have been there in 1934: A cozy, welcoming atmosphere; huge, hearty portions of Italian food; and some of the best and friendliest service I've encountered in a long time.
What's really interesting, though, is what Camp told me in an interview later: His goal is to make Italian Gardens appealing to both the person looking for a giant plate of pasta smothered in red sauce and the person looking for smaller portions of regional Italian cuisine.
It's an intriguing mix, and though he's not there yet, he will be.
Many of the Italian classics Camp offers are at least loosely based on the dishes he served at Trovato's, the Dundee restaurant he used to own. Some are made with the same recipes.
Though Italian Gardens doesn't yet have its liquor license, Camp said he plans to pick it up Monday and has already formulated a wine list that will feature many well-priced Italian and California bottles. In the meantime, diners can bring their own bottles and won't have to pay a corkage fee. After the restaurant gets it license, corkage fees will remain minimal, he said.
Italian Gardens is tiny — just a handful of tables and booths — and on my first visit, a Wednesday night, the place was more than half full with older diners living it up over many plates and bottles of wine. A wall-sized mirror decorates the north wall and the same bar that's occupied other restaurants in the space adorns the west wall.
Green tablecloths and old-school burgundy booths and chairs give the restaurant a vintage feel. It's not like an old-school Omaha Italian steakhouse. It's a charming, casual neighborhood joint.
We started our first visit with arancini — fried risotto balls. Camp's version of the appetizer was creamy inside with a thin layer of breading outside. As we cut into the balls, they let out a puff of steam and almost seemed to deflate, they were so light.
The risotto had a super-creamy, rich finish. But I could have used more basil and I couldn't identify one ingredient, tiny brown bits.
Camp told me later those brown bits were dried, pulverized cremini mushrooms. As for spice, all that's in the arancini is dried basil and salt. He told me that chef Lionel Have, formerly of the Omaha Country Club and a veritable Omaha culinary legend, taught him how to make risotto years ago. He's done it Lionel's way since.
Every entree comes with soup or salad. My husband tried the homemade minestrone, with a rich, spicy tomato base and veggies that didn't have a ton of flavor. On both visits, bow-tie pasta substituted for garbanzo beans. In my salad, the mixed greens, shredded white cheese, sliced black olives and dried cranberries were simple, but good.
At the recommendation of our excellent server — who did a great job of answering every question I threw at her — I ordered my gnocchi half covered with house marinara and half with alfredo sauce.
After I ate plate upon plate of spaghetti earlier this year during the spaghetti Food Prowl, I learned exactly what I like and don't like in red sauce.
The sauce at Italian Gardens was too sweet for me. I don't love the flavor of dried herbs in marinara, and I noted them here. Texturally, the sauce was good: not too runny and not too thick and pleasantly chunky with hunks of tomato. It coated the soft, pillowy gnocchi nicely.
The white sauce seemed bland, but it could have been because of the contrast with the sweet red sauce on the other half of the plate. I had the white sauce in other dishes and didn't notice the blandness as much. Mixed in one bite, the two sauces were better.
I know some Omaha diners prefer a sweeter marinara sauce, so I asked Camp about it. He told me he's using the same recipe at Italian Gardens that he did at Trovato's.
“It is a little sweeter than normal marinara,” he said, adding that the restaurant goes through 10 to 15 gallons of the sauce a week and that customers have been asking if it's available in bulk to go.
Camp uses a canned, vine-ripened tomato for the base of the sauce, then adds dried oregano and rosemary, fresh basil, garlic and olive oil.
“There are certain things that you want to use a dried herb in,” he said. “The dried flavor is better.”
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Camp added gnocchi to the menu after customers asked for it.
I remembered the flavor of my husband's veal parmesan from many childhood visits to Trovato's, and Camp told me it is indeed the same recipe.
It's an old-time favorite done right: tasty, crisp breading and melted cheese all sitting on a bed of fettuccine and marinara. The marinara was too sweet for my husband, too, and he said he was glad it was only on the pasta, not on the veal. The vegetables on the side, including carrots and zucchini coated in olive oil and lots of fresh basil, weren't throwaway.
Though some of Italian Gardens' pasta is fresh and made in house — including that for ravioli, canneloni and lasagna — the fettuccini, spaghetti, linguini and penne are dry.
Sinatra crooned on the speakers throughout our second visit, which started with one of the restaurant's pizzas, suggested on the menu as an appetizer. I liked the super-fresh basil and cheese on the pie we ordered, though the crust, made of a Sardinian flatbread, was way too crunchy. Camp said our pizza was probably overdone, and that the crust should instead be crispy but have some give. Ours didn't.
When I took the first bite of my chicken piccata entree, though, I forgot about that pizza. The piccata was the best thing I ate at Italian Gardens. The chicken, tender and nicely cooked, was topped with a truly amazing, lemony cream sauce infused with bold citrus. Capers added a pleasant salty note. I meant to just eat a touch of my food; instead, I nearly cleaned my plate.
“People either love chicken piccata, or they don't care for it,” Camp said. I clearly loved it.
My husband also liked his white lasagna, one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. Savory flavors — bits of chicken, artichoke hearts, ricotta cheese — were all layered between the house-made noodles. The white sauce here wasn't bland, and the dish was well-spiced. It'd be a perfect winter meal.
I asked Camp about the restaurant's huge portions: I didn't finish anything.
“They're larger than they need to be,” he said. “If you were going to open in another city, you'd tone down that portion size. Some are really outrageous.”
Camp said he plans to begin to move the menu away from “Omaha Italian,” huge plates of pasta with sauce, more toward a regional Italian menu that includes smaller portions prepared in a more rustic style. One example: The current platter of chicken cacciatore is huge, Camp said.
“I feel like giving the person who finishes it a free T-shirt,” he said.
That dish will be revised to contain a half chicken from Plum Creek Farms that he'll brine overnight and serve with a more rustic, mushroom-studded sauce.
He has no plans to totally get rid of those big plates of pasta, because there's a market for them here. But he wants to please the customers who come in looking for something they'd eat when they were a child in Italy.
It's a difficult balance, but one that I think Italian Gardens could — and will — easily achieve.
“I'm doing research. I'm learning how dishes are supposed to look and taste,” Camp said. “That's where we're going.”
I, for one, can't wait.
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