After a brief introduction, James Martin flips on the lights in his eclectic Springfield, Missouri, restaurant and grabs a stack of paychecks sitting on the bar. He shuffles through them quickly, scratching his signature on each one at a pace that gives a clear signal that he’s not one who’s into wasting time.
“So, what do you know about me?” he says, pushing the stack of checks aside.
I had done some homework. I knew he was the owner and chef at Ristorante Gilardi’s, tucked away on Springfield’s historic Walnut Street. I knew the restaurant specialized in authentic Italian cuisine. And by word of mouth, I knew the food was good, despite having never tasted it.
Gilardi's Italian Restaurant offers a fresh approach to dining in Springfield.
“Come on,” he says, “What do you know about me? Did you do your research?”
“I want you to tell me,” I shoot back.
“Alright then — I want to change the world one plate at a time!” he says. “I was put on this Earth to change the world. I’m doing it the only way I know, which is through restaurants.”
Passion for a Movement
Martin, 39, has been in the restaurant business his entire life. It’s in his blood. After purchasing Gilardi’s in 2013 from Chef Nicola Gilardi, he’s been endlessly passionate about it being part of a bigger movement to make Springfield a go-to destination for farm-to-table cuisine. Partnering with local urban farms, Martin boasts that his food is always fresh and always local.
“This is not just a restaurant,” he says. This is ground zero for a movement for me and the people who work for me. In ten years, I’ll have six urban farms in a 3-mile radius of this restaurant.”
Martin says his goal of expanding urban farms in Springfield is anything but lofty and sees Springfield as a destination to tour urban farms in the near future.
“That would be good for the entire community,” he says. “We’re in a position to develop a platform for sustainable living that will benefit us all.”
The Dining Experience
Glardi's main dining room.
Gilardi’s sits behind the historic Grey Gables house on Walnut Street. If you didn’t know it was back there, it would be easy to miss. Just like discovering an out-of-the-way, old-school Italian restaurant in New York City’s Little Italy or Chicago’s northwest side, it feels as if you’ve found a secret that no one else knows about. Built in 1895, Gilardi’s is in what used to be horse stables. Its burgundy walls and dark-toned woodwork only enhance the the feel of a classic Italian restaurant.
“It’s all about the experience,” says Martin, as he picks fresh basil from his garden for the evening’s dinner. “I want to be that place that is so unique and so different that this has got to be where she wants her husband to take her for their anniversary. That may be the one time she walks in my door, but it’s her anniversary spot. It’s her experience.”
Gilardi's owner and head Chef, James Martin, picks fresh basil from his garden in preparation the evening's dinner service.
Martin says providing a unique dining experience for his guests is paying off. On average, Gilardi’s seats an average of 12-15 tables a week of people that have never been in before. The increase in customers has helped Martin pay 30 percent of his purchase loan.
“Providing a unique experience works,” he says. “Food is something you buy off a shelf or at a drive-through window. That’s not an experience.”
From the impeccable attention to detail he requires of his servers, to guests’ interactions with his back-of-the-house crew, Martin wants it classy and professional with an eye on making sure guests know where their food comes from.
“When we describe specials, we don’t just say, ‘it’s a roasted garlic goat cheese crostini topped with a red onion marmalade,’ we say ‘it’s a roasted garlic goat cheese crostini from Terrell Creek Farm topped with a red onion marmalade from our farms.’ Every time we can brand ourselves by association, it’s good for us, it’s good for Terrell Creek Farms, it’s good for Millsap Farms and it’s good for Urban Roots Farm.”
The Fresh Food
Penne alla Vodka at Gilardi's.
Throwing on his chef’s coat that has “Head Dishwasher” stitched on the front, Martin makes his way into the restaurant’s small kitchen that’s tinier than some closets. It’s ridiculously small compared to the size of a restaurant than can put out 250 plates in one evening. Regardless, it’s where the magic happens.
Just like it’s second nature, Martin drops fresh onions and garlic in a pan of oil to create one of Gilardi’s signature dishes — Penne alla Vodka. He glazes the pan with vodka, throwing flames toward the ceiling, then finishes it off with a spiced tomato cream sauce and jumbo fresh Gulf shrimp. Yes, it tastes as good as it sounds.
Chef Martin throwing flames.
The menu offers a number of insalatas and antipastis made from fresh, local produce as well as creative pasta dishes. Or if you’re in the mood for simple spaghetti with made-from-scratch marina — there’s that too.
Martin’s ingredients for a sustainable, local, partner-sourced restaurant have come together at a perfect time for Springfield — and he knows it. Gilardi’s is a must-visit, don’t-miss Italian dining experience.
Address: 820 E Walnut St, Springfield, MO 65806
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to close
Sunday and lunchtime available for scheduled parties
Reservations are recommended.