Like the mythological Hydra, USC Village regenerates its losses at an alarming speed, recently replacing the short-lived Italian spot Cafe Barilla with another: Il Giardino. Unlike the Greek myth, in which each new Hydra head is more aggressive than the last, Il Giardino is pleasant and affordable, ironing out the kinks of its predecessor with a more refined menu, better quality pasta and more generous portions.
Like other USC Village spaces, Il Giardino has a minimal and trendy interior, with plant decals and an open kitchen that’s more or less unchanged from Cafe Barilla’s setup. Music thumps at a pleasant volume inside, loud enough to alleviate any tension and quiet enough to be ignored while working. There’s a variety of seating options, including a long, communal table in the middle of the dining section as well as outdoor tables. A cook buzzes from station to station behind the glass partition separating the front from the back, building each pasta order one by one.
The majority of the menu is devoted to pasta, with both a build-your-own pasta option and preset pasta specials. Of the two, the build-your-own pasta is significantly emphasized, with about six different types of pasta and seven variations of sauces to try. The rest of the menu is occupied by sandwiches, two salads and two entrees. Each menu item is below or around $15, with the sandwiches and pasta specials at $10.95 and the build-your-own pasta at $9.95.
Il Giardino uses the same type of fast-casual concept as most other USC Village restaurants. But the budding restaurant has yet to settle, serving food in to-go bowls with plastic forks and relying on a numbered receipt to connect you with your order.
Nonetheless, the service was alert and attentive, lingering by my table to make sure I enjoyed my pasta and to offer a lid and bag as my order gradually grew bigger.
Some standouts from the 42 possible pasta/sauce combinations are the gnocchi, pesto and mushroom cream sauce. The pesto is bright and creamy, not too oily but full of flavor, garnished with a small pile of pine nuts on top. The gnocchi tastes fresh, pillowy but not overdone, and sturdy enough to compliment the sauces. Each pasta bowl is served with a slice of focaccia-esque bread, bright yellow and soft enough to sop up an impressive amount of sauce.
Il Giardino serves two bolognese sauces: one vegan with mushroom, and one traditional with beef. Most surprising is the porcini mushroom sauce, as the sweetness from the cream and savoriness from the mushroom combine to form a sauce that manages to enhance the pasta with only a light coating.
While they offer chicken on top of cream-based sauces, there are no other possible toppings for the pastas besides garnish, limiting the options for customization to only pasta and sauce.
The sandwiches are served on the same bread, warmed slightly and cut diagonally. The caprese sandwich was satisfying for its price, with a tangy pesto dressing complimenting the sliced tomato and mozzarella, but paled in comparison to the pasta.
Il Giardino offers other items on its menu, but the pasta is the most accomplished option, served in large and filling portions for a reasonable price — a bit of a unicorn at USC Village.
While the restaurant’s interior may be thoroughly modern, its menu channels traditional and authentic Italian food. The sauces exude time and care, a product of well-crafted recipes and well-instructed execution.
Following its first loss at the village, Cafe Barilla, USC has conjured up a stronger and more resilient pasta place to take its stead. And while Il Giardino may seem like an uncanny replacement for Cafe Barilla, a bite of its pasta will prove otherwise.