Flavor: Rustic Italian
Ambiance: Check the weather forecast
Where: 2411 Hwy 108E, Columbus
Contact: (828) 894-0234
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Joe Laudisio and Mary Lyth initially planned on running a high-end, sit-down restaurant in Polk County.
But plans changed, and instead they created an upscale grab-and-go entrée counter, a la Whole Foods, featuring herbs and vegetables plucked from their one-acre organic garden. Giardini Pasta and Catering opened in Columbus last October, serving an Italian-leaning menu of pastas, meats, salads and soups.
The little shop really hit its stride earlier this year with the introduction of a mobile wood-fired pizza oven, a tank-sized gadget Laudisio commissioned a Charlotte brick mason to build. Laudisio and Lyth intended to use the oven as a party centerpiece at catering jobs, occasionally firing it up for the Giardini lunch crowd and rolling it out every Thursday to sell pies at the Tryon Farmers’ Market. But the oven’s much-vaunted mobility didn’t go over well with regular customers, who began complaining whenever the contraption was wheeled away.
“We found people would come in, and we’d be out catering, and they’d be mad,” Laudisio says. “People were loving the heck out of the pizzas.”
Rather than park the mobile unit, the couple—along with their son, 29-year old Jeff Levea, who serves as Giardini’s chef—recently decided to install a second wood-fired oven in the restaurant’s kitchen, a project which required hooking up a tractor to a pergola adjoining the house and dragging it 30 yards into the backyard, leaving space to build a brand-new pizza room. “We’re New York-state-of-mind people, so we all jumped on it,” says Laudisio, a Buffalo native.
In the last 10 weeks, Laudisio reports, Giardini has sold more than 1,200 pizzas.
Popular as they are, the pies are still a work in progress—Levea admits he’s still adjusting to some of the quirks of pizza-making. They’re tasty, not yet transcendent. But the pizzas represent an admirable effort by one Polk County family to significantly enhance the culinary landscape of an area that has long produced better fruits and vegetables than restaurants in which to enjoy them.
While Giardini is still officially a take-out-only operation, the best place to take one of its pies is the shaded picnic area just behind the shop, where diners can look out over the gardens where the pizza toppings grew: The setting more than compensates for any deficiencies in the pie.
And really, there’s much to like about the pizzas, including the supple, whole-wheat crust, with just a hint of welcome sweetness. Levea avoids over-sugaring his dough by skipping the proofing process, a step he considers unnecessary for made-to-order pies. The decision strips some of the showmanship from his craft, since unproofed dough can’t be tossed overhead in the style associated with urban pizzerias and guys named Sal. “They’re always asking me to toss the dough,” groans Levea, referring to his farmers’ market regulars.
OK, no tossing. But taming the dough has presented its own set of problems, Levea says while tugging an especially tacky slice from its corrugated white box.
“That’s how you know it’s rustic,” he says. “It won’t come out of the box.”
“When you’re cooking in this environment,” he continues, “when there’s rain coming in, your dough knows it. It’s what I call the personality of the pizza.”
Personality prevails at Giardini, the latest in a string of business endeavors launched by the hard-charging Laudisio and Lyth. Prior to opening the shop, the pair ran Edible Pursuits, a 2,400-square-foot Hilton Head lunch spot specializing in tuna salads, fruit plates and other light fare.
“We were known as a chick joint,” Laudisio remembers. “Guys wouldn’t come until we added burgers and beef-on-wreck.”
The couple didn’t stop at meating-up their menu: Intent on attracting even more customers, they created an on-site, after-hours cooking school helmed by a European chef.
“That kind of took our skills up another level,” Lyth says.
“A lot of what we do here are skills we honed in that classroom,” Laudisio agrees. “When our chef first started coming in, we had tomatoes in the cooler. He yelled and screamed: ‘Sweetness does not intensify in a cooler!’ I said, I didn’t know, that’s the way I learned growing up. Now we know to keep our tomatoes out of the damn cooler.”
Lyth and Laudisio, along with their daughter-in-law and Levea—who was running a massive banquet facility in Buffalo before relocating to Columbus—each contributed a pizza preparation to Giardini’s menu. Laudisio’s recipe is currently leading the popularity contest, with more Giuseppe Verdis sold than any other house pizza.
“I called it an aria,” Laudisio says of his roasted-vegetable creation. “Most everything on there comes out of the garden.”
The pie features homegrown eggplant and peppers, roasted in the 800-degree wood-fired oven, garlic and store-bought sun-dried tomatoes. But what makes the dish, er, sing, is the phenomenal pesto base, made with garden-fresh basil. The pesto is perfectly seasoned, and melds gorgeously with the crust.
The pizza is dabbed heavily with goat cheese, which becomes the edible equivalent of static. Extra cheese just gets in the way of simpler, better ingredients, like the brilliantly balsamic-marinated onions on Lyth’s spinach, artichoke and olive pie.
Still, there’s every indication Levea’s confidence in his ingredients is increasing. Levea, who makes a knockout wedding cookie, has lately been experimenting with dessert pizzas.
“There’s so much you can do,” he says. “We just made a peach and blueberry pizza with sweetened cream cheese.
“Right now,” he adds, with the deep appreciation of a chef-gardener, “peaches and blueberries are out of this world.”