Just as The Garden’s menu displays a unique melding of flavors, owner and executive chef Justin Richardson has combined the cooking styles he has learned over the years to create what he calls a “contemporary dining experience grounded in Italian roots.”
His education in food service began as a child in his parents’ former pizzeria, Bernie & Betty’s in Springfield. They currently own Capone’s Hideout, which is located next to their son’s restaurant in New Berlin. Along the way, Justin worked at Pao (also in Springfield) and studied business at Lincoln Land Community College. He eventually found himself at the French-based Johnson & Wales Italian Culinary Institute in Denver, Colo., where he had the opportunity to tour both Northern and Southern Italy, experimenting with the different regions’ culinary methodologies.
While his inspiration as a young chef was basically “anything new,” today he finds joy in elevating classic dishes—without being fussy. He says the French principles he learned at the institute continue to be a major influence. Those principles include precision, technique and attitude, which can be found in the building of sauces, slower reductions and the amplification of traditional menu offerings.
These principles are obvious when perusing The Garden’s menu. It is divided into three sections consisting of wood-fired pizzas, Piccoli Morsi and Piccoli Piatti. The latter two categories are basically “small morsels or bites and small plates…designed to be shared.” Justin says they rotate around staple items with new sauces, etc., according to what’s in season.
Pizza fans will see traditional pies like the Margherita, as well as a few with an interesting twist, like the Rusty Goat (pesto, sauteed wild mushrooms, goat cheese, caramelized red onion and arugula) and the Bang Bang (their own Bang Bang sauce with shrimp, spinach, onion, bacon and mixed cheeses).
Under small bites, Justin says two particular favorites are the Brussels sprouts and mussels. The former are adorned with a maple cider vinaigrette, caramelized onions and roasted pine nuts; the latter, steamed fresh PEI mussels in a white wine Bruno with Italian sausage, fennel and tomato.
Small plates feature dishes including the Braised Short Rib Pappardelle and Bistecca, a filet cooked with beef bordelaise accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and a horseradish steak sugo. Other plates include the Tortellini Carbonara, King Crab and Seafood Medley, Sausage and Shrimp Bucatini, and Lamb Lollipops. According to Justin, the filet has been a No. 1 seller for years.
He says they buy local whenever they can, including whole animals, which they cross-utilize. They also source herbs from his family’s greenhouse.
The Garden’s atmosphere can be described as rustic and cozy. Justin says he and his dad drew up plans for the restaurant on a napkin when he was 19. It required an extensive build up, so Justin returned home to help. Construction, including the stone wall Italian garden, which he refers to as “Stonehenge,” was completed in 2014. To see it, patrons must take a peculiar route to enter, through the Fast Stop convenience store and Capones.
The eatery seats 48 people indoors, and 32 outdoors seasonally. Fully staffed, The Garden employs 12, but averages seven.
The Garden isn’t the only eatery in central Illinois bearing Justin’s handiwork. He is also a partner and executive chef at Vele (“blank canvas” in Italian) in Springfield, a contributor at Curate in Springfield, and, of course, Capone’s Hideout.
Justin says at 17, he moved up to managing and knew the route he wanted to go. His background and studies equipped him with an understanding of culinary arts and entrepreneurship, and his travels led to a love of braised meat and cream dishes. These new perspectives became the foundation for The Garden and other ventures, including a new California-style bistro name Sole (French for sun) coming this May to Springfield Clinic.