Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Iozzo's Garden of Italy

For various reasons, the annual Italian Street Festival, which usually takes place in the parking lot and street abutting Holy Rosary Catholic Church, in June, was cancelled this year, much to the dismay of area festivalgoers. In its place, the owner of Iozzo’s Garden of Italy took up a collection from its diners, and managed to raise enough money to put on a smaller version of the street festival, which was held a week ago this past Saturday, on the 13th, and was called Taste of Italy. It was immediately clear when we arrived that, relative to the festival in whose stead it stood, practically no one knew that Taste of Italy was taking place. On the plus side, that made it much easier to find parking and navigate the handful of the food trucks and restaurant booths. Amy and I both wound up trying the meatballs on a stick, from Iozzo’s, which is one of those places we’ve been meaning to get to, and just haven’t yet.

Fast forward to a week later, and it had taken us most of Amy and Jackson’s fall break, and my October vacation, to find time for Amy and I to go out on a date, but we finally managed to drop Jackson off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house so we could spend the afternoon together and go out to dinner. We started at the art museum, which is much easier to enjoy without a rambunctious little one pulling on your arms; and then we wandered around for a bit in the car, trying to figure out what we wanted to eat and where we wanted to go for it. I had decided to just roam around Fountain Square after driving by Iozzo’s Garden of Italy, downtown, just for kicks—to see how busy they were on an early Saturday evening. When we drove by and saw only a few cars parked in the area, and plenty of empty tables that we could see from the car as we drove by, I cancelled the idea of roaming Fountain Square, and we headed for Iozzo’s.

I was impressed enough by the meatballs we had at the little street festival, but Iozzo’s Garden of Italy is not the best Italian restaurant in Indianapolis, regardless of what the bartender says. It’s certainly not bad, but when the best you can do on an early Saturday evening—we arrived before six o’clock—is seat people at bar tables in the lounge, because the empty dining room is “completely booked,” it might not be a bad idea to get the bartender to take a break from fellating the place for the two inquisitors sitting at the bar. (I never was able to figure out if those guys were from out of town, or if they were from here and just liked to hear what bartenders have to say. Either way, a Venn diagram labeled Annoying would have quite neatly enclosed the both of them—and the bartender, too.)

Maybe this is just standard operating procedure when you sit in the bar/lounge section of reasonably nice restaurants—I don’t know. I remember from the Nicky Blaine’s days that it’s pretty much de rigueur when you’re seated directly at the bar, and the bartender has nothing better to do than bend the ears of regulars. It was annoying then, too—but at least back then, the bartender knew us and would only charge us for every third or fourth drink. On Saturday night, I paid $25 for linguini with pesto sauce, some barely recognizable chunks of prosciutto, and five big-ass shrimp. We might still have been able to hear the bartender if we had been seated in the actual dining room, which was not all that far removed from the “lounge.”

Luckily, the food was good enough that I was mostly able to ignore the bartender’s disparaging remarks about Mama Carolla’s, Iaria’s, and the Milano Inn, all well-liked Italian restaurants in the city. The linguini was almost perfectly al dente, and the pesto cream sauce, despite being very heavy and separating over the course of the meal, was so strongly flavored with basil that I couldn’t even taste the tiny chunks of prosciutto, even after I remembered that they were supposed to be there and started to look for them. The enormous shrimp were perfectly adequate, but nothing to write home about. Amy’s garlic shrimp, one of the most heavily garlicked dishes I have ever tasted, would have been even better, except that it was made with stupid pasta—capellini. If there is a valid reason for pasta thinner than linguini to exist, I am not aware of it.

Both entrées came with a house salad, and bread accompanied by something called “soppy tomatoes,” which is supposedly a southern Italian tradition. I Googled the phrase and got a handful of hits that were actually related to what I had searched for, and a boatload of hits that had to do with sloppy joes. Enclosing the search string in quotation marks dropped the number of hits from 772,000 to 285. Maybe it’s a tradition just because they say it is. Either way, it’s a relish (or you might call it a salsa) comprised of marinated tomatoes, olive oil, scallions, and oregano. Very flavorful, and it certainly helped the three small slices of dry, tasteless bread. The house salad was a simple affair of spring greens and balsamic vinaigrette, with a couple of slices each of cucumber and tomato. Not exactly inspired, but well done—just enough dressing to keep things moving and balance the flavors.

The menu is strong enough to merit a return trip, though the possibility of having to suffer the pretensions of the loquacious bartender is an almost equally strong disincentive to return. The single advantage it has over Iaria’s—which remains the gold standard for Italian food in Indianapolis (despite being closed on Sunday and Monday)—is that it’s open seven days a week. For me, the food can almost always overcome deficiencies in charm or service (though it should be noted that the service we had Saturday night was great); but this might be one of those rare instances where even really good food can’t make up for a complete lack of charm. There’s a reason that some people sneer at you when you say something nice about the downtown dining scene—it evokes the concept of the haves commingling with one another in fancy places that have dress codes and judge the rest of us for being so ordinary.

I wish that more people knew that there are lots of places to eat downtown where you can be yourself and have a good time, regardless of who you are, what you do, or how much money you have. There are places like that where you can drop a ton of money if you want, or almost nothing at all; and if you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, Fountain Square isn’t very far from downtown at all. Places like Iaria’s, Amici’s, Mama Irma, Siam Square, Santorini, Greek Islands, Shapiro’s, Bazbeaux, Old Point Tavern, Chatham Tap, Aesop’s Tables, the Bosphorous, and Smokehouse on Shelby all have charm to spare without beating you over the head with it. Iozzo’s Garden of Italy is not one of those places.

946 South Meridian Street

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