Since Jax Restaurant Reviews has grown to be the biggest food blog in Jacksonville, we’ve begun to get a constant barrage of questions from diners. One that seems to come our way over and over again is “Where can I find great Italian cuisine in Jacksonville?” Until now our answer has been that you can’t. Of course there are some fairly good options such as Enza’s (we’re fans of the atmosphere and the food), La Cena (The food is consistently rated tops for Italian restaurants by Jacksonville diners, but the service is notoriously slow on busy nights) and Primi Piatti.
I’m hopeful that with the addition of Il Desco, we will finally be able to tell folks that they can find great Italian cuisine in Jax. Il Desco just opened in the space Pele’s Wood Fire used to occupy on the corner of Park and King street in Riverside. Il Desco is the latest restaurant concept from Forking Amazing Restaurant Group, owners of Bistro Aix and Ovinte. Il Desco is their take on Modern Italian Cuisine. We were invited out for a media preview of what they will be offering to diners on a regular basis.
Il Desco has a huge wood fire oven that allows them to create some amazing wood fired dishes that you won’t find elsewhere. One of the wood fired items that really stood out was the oysters. Il Desco offers wood fired oysters for $15 per half dozen in 3 different preparations: Grand Central (Anchovy butter, grilled lemon, Parmigiano-Reggiano), Rockefeller (Swiss chard, béchamel, toasted bread crumbs, Nuke’s bacon), and Riverside (bone marrow & herb butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano). These oysters will delight your palate and have you coming back for more. I can’t think of anywhere else in town I’ve had better.
Il Desco offers a veal and sausage meatball appetizer, served with tomato sauce and Pecorino Romano polenta. A meatball is one of the simplest Italian bites and often is also one of the most boring. The polenta this meatball is served atop at Il Desco sets this one apart. The sharp cheeses in the polenta meet the acidity of the tomato sauce head on to create a simple, yet brilliant collision of flavors that I was definitely a fan of. Even if you’re not normally a meatball fan, these are worth a try.
When I first got started writing about restaurants, Entertaining U magazine food editor Erin Thursby shared a tidbit of info that has stuck with me ever since. She told me, “You won’t see a restaurant in its true form until about 9 months after they open.” Now over two years into writing this blog, I’ve watched many restaurants open and evolve, and I’m convinced she’s right on the money. For this reason, when I come to a media preview of a new restaurant I always expect to see a couple dishes that I know will either evolve into something great or be removed from the menu at some point. Il Desco’s octopus dish ($13), with Puttanesca, arugula, crispy garlic, and squid ink fits in this category. The octopus is incredibly tender and the accompaniments are great, but it has this overwhelming charred, almost burnt taste that sort of ruins the dish. I thought maybe I got a burnt piece of octopus so I grabbed a piece from another part of the plate to try. It too tasted charred. I even took the time to ask someone else who attended the afternoon preview (they held both an afternoon and a evening preview) and they told me the octopus they were served had the same overly-charred taste. I think often chefs, with the incredibly broad palates they develop, find this charred taste really adds something to the dish. I’m convinced for the average diner with a much narrower palate, it unfortunately takes something away from the experience. If you really enjoy slightly charred flavor, you’ll be in love with this dish. If you don’t, the char will ruin it for you. If I were to guess I’d say this dish will evolve over time and may very well become one of the stars of the menu when they get all the tweaks figured out. I look forward to that.
Il Desco will offer 8 different kinds of wood fired pizza. One of the more unique ones we got a chance to try was The Bivalve ($17) with Littleneck clams, béchamel, fennel, leeks, Nueske’s bacon, lemon, and chives. Clams and bacon work together beautifully and the lemon flavor comes through in a way that accents the other tastes nicely. The first main dish we tried was the Chicken Milanese ($19) which is Springer Mountain pan roasted breaded chicken with brown butter, white wine, garlic, shallots, heirloom tomatoes, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you’re into chicken you can’t go wrong with this one. Simple, tasty and lighter than a lot of breaded chicken breasts you’ll find around town. The other main dish we tried was the Lobster Cavatelli pasta – Maine lobster, fresno peppers, lobster cream, and herbs. The cavatelli pasta made in-house at Il Desco is very similar to gnocchi. It is doughy, hearty, and has a unique texture that gnocchi fans are sure the love. The sauce is wonderful in a way that almost reminds me of a lobster bisque. If you’ve arrived starving and ready to refill the tank this is just the dish for you.
We were fairly heartbroken when Pele’s closed, but after this visit to preview Il Desco we’re hopefully that Jacksonville has finally found our great Italian spot. Only time will tell whether this hope comes to fruition. They certainly check all the right boxes, with pasta made in-house, a unique raw bar, and quality ingredients sourced locally whenever possible. Can Il Desco grow into a Jacksonville mainstay? Give it a shot and let us know what you think.