Regional Dining Guide

Alchemy at Giovanni’s: A Little Magic in a Fresh Setting

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Changes are underway at Giovanni’s Restaurant in Rockford, and perhaps the most exciting is a new indoor-outdoor space. See what magical food and drinks await inside.

Chef Al Castrogiovanni is shaking things up at indoor/outdoor Alchemy. (Chris Linden photos)

Alchemy isn’t just a place – it’s a frame of mind, at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, 610 N. Bell School Road, Rockford.

That’s how Al Castrogiovanni, founder and chef, thinks of his restaurant’s newest dining area, an indoor/outdoor space that takes patio dining to a new level.

“I took something that was nothing and made it into a useable restaurant space – it’s like coal to gold,” he says.

Alchemy began last summer with a wood-fired pizza oven, bar and seating on a patio at the restaurant’s entrance. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

“People loved it,” says Castrogiovanni. “People loved the small bar because it was intimate and they could gather around it. Everyone kept asking, ‘When does Alchemy open?’”

Permanently opened this summer, the newly revamped space is less patio than dining room. It’s now a four-season room, with a permanent roof and garage-type window/doors that roll up during nice weather. On a mild evening, the space feels like a deck party.

“It’s nice to know that if it starts raining, we can close the place up,” he says. “It’s like a Transformer.”

Last summer, Alchemy’s most popular dish was pizza, baked in a wood-fired oven located on the patio. That wood-fired pizza is now the anchor to this inventive menu.

“It’s fun for me to be doing the food I’ve always wanted to do, here in Rockford,” says Castrogiovanni. “We’re not trying to do pompous food – we’re just trying to do stuff that people eat every day, like burgers, pasta, pizza, fresh seafood.”

At its elementary level, the new menu incorporates simple, whole foods that are fresh and packed with flavor. Burger lovers can find beef and homemade bean patties. For the pasta lovers, Castrogiovanni created homemade noodles, with light sauces that play on Alfredo and Asian curry, among others.

Of course, the pizzas are a mainstay. The individual-sized pies go well beyond simple sausage and pepperoni. The Mother Cluck’r, for example, includes sauce, mushroom, mozzarella and arugula salad topped with a smoked egg. And then there’s the Otto, an eight-cheese pizza, and the spicy Desperado, topped with jalapeno, chorizo, radish, queso fresco, chile tomato sauce and two cheeses.

The sandwiches, too, are a marvel. Set on fresh bread made in-house, they include choices such as the homemade pastrami Reuben, the rainbow trout BLT and the smoked pulled pork “Bread-dunk-a-dunk.”

Mouth watering yet? Castrogiovanni says he’s also making homemade gelato, and has unveiled a carry-out menu for pastas, pizzas and gelato.

Located toward the back of Alchemy, the new bar includes more seating, and 24 craft beer taps. With the additional 12 taps inside Big Al’s Bar, this is one of the largest draft choices in this far east-side neighborhood.

“On this side of town, there’s no place that has any kind of widespread beer menu,” says Castrogiovanni. “There just aren’t many options. Last year, we sold a lot of great bottled beers, and I think what we were missing was the feeling of having a tap here.”

Cocktail lovers are also enjoying a menu of made-from-scratch drinks, many that use Wisconsin-based Death’s Door spirits. Then, there’s the homemade Adult Lemonade and ginger beer. Margaritas also pack a punch and are shaken with a pasteurized egg, for balance.

“We try not to make them overdone,” he says. “We try to keep them real clean – stuff that’s fresh and nice to drink.”

With the new Alchemy, Giovanni’s is kick-starting a restaurant-wide facelift. The restaurant’s banquet center has received a modern update, complete with a new dance floor, new carpeting and a stone work wall.

Across all three dining spaces – the dining room, Alchemy and Big Al’s Bar – diners can enjoy a single menu, recently updated with Castrogiovanni’s fresh dishes. The idea, he says, is for diners to enjoy the same meal in whichever setting they prefer.

“There are only a few things that carried over, and those are things that people liked last year,” says Castrogiovanni. “Otherwise, it’s a completely different menu. It’s completely fresh and I think more enjoyable.”

The most noticeable changes at Giovanni’s are happening at the entrance of Alchemy and Big Al’s Bar, with the installation of a large wood-fired pizza oven. Located at one end of the bar, the oven is surrounded by chefs busily rolling out and baking pizzas. Additional changes, including new windows and fresh decor, are coming soon, says Castrogiovanni.

“You can watch the chefs cook,” he says. “I thought it’d give this more of an open feel, and when people come here for banquets, they can see it through the glass windows.”

The new-look Big Al’s is compatible with the sleek styling of Alchemy, but it still features the signature murals overhead. Inside Alchemy, the largely black-and-white décor makes good use of aesthetic wooden floors, jet-black furniture and salvaged lumber. Artisan metal dividers, produced in Rockford, separate the bar and entrance from a long row of seating. Twinkle lights offer a casual glow, hanging from the exposed-industrial ceiling.

Near the bar, there’s a small room for private gatherings, which comes with a private patio.
At night, the space is a mixture of classy urban bar and patio party – just what Castrogiovanni was looking for.

“I wanted to make a place that reminded people of being on vacation,” he says. “Removing themselves from their stressful lives – that was our goal last year. Now, this year, it really comes through.”

There’s a bit of magic to Alchemy, and Castrogiovanni hopes this is just the start of something fresh.
“I’ve always wanted to do my thing in the kitchen,” he says. “There are a lot of people in town who have had me do this on a more private level, and now I’m just making it more public. I’m excited to do some new stuff around here.”

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