Went to Aliseo, the new Italian restaurant in Prospect Heights, on Saturday eve. We had a good experience with some caveats we think are useful to share in light of the positive press this place has gotten.
The good news is that there is absolutely nothing conventional about this restaurant. You won't find a pasta dish on the menu or anything even approaching any of kind of Italian fare you expect anywhere else. But it's a bit of a misnomer to consider this place a full-service restaurant. It's more like an enoteca, a wine bar with small plates of cured meats, assorted cheeses and vegetable dishes.
There are more of these plates on the menu than anything else. And we're happy to report those plates are great. We had one large plate of onions stewed in balsamic vinegar, a dip of artichoke puree and an amazing stewed eggplant and pine nut salad. It was fantastic. We also had a plate of proscuitto, sliced pear and triple-cream cheese that was truly sublime. Match that with a very extensive wine list of Italian reds and wines from the March region and so far so good.
If you're seeking out anything more than this type of fare you may be disappointed. There were only four main entrees on Saturday: roast lamb, stewed cuttlefish, risotto with spinach and cheese, and polenta with Portobello mushroom. No fish, no chicken, no pasta -- and they ran out of the risotto by 9 p.m. That didn't leave a whole lot to eat.
We ordered the polenta and it was good. The people next to us ordered the lamb, which also looked good. But the portions for these so-called ``main courses'' were very small. The lamb dish was maybe four slices of meat with no side dish. The polenta was one mushroom over a small stack of polenta. Yes, we know the owners are emphasizing the small portion thing, trying to carry a tradition from places in Italy. But, having traveled to Italy a few times, we also know that a main course there is a main course -- enough to sate your appetite. At Aliseo, a main course is really a small appetizer and not much more. Two ``main courses,'' one appetizer and two glasses of wine cost about $60 with tip -- and I was still a bit hungry when we left!
Beyond the food, the vibe of this place is great. It's got this real homey feel with its old-fashioned wallpaper, tin ceilings, exposed brick walls and the owners' kids scampering around. The owners are very attentive and they don't rush you out.
Yet the place left us scratching our heads a bit. The menu is almost a puzzle to decipher. The place also seems to want to shut out the outside world. There's no sign out front and no menu posted in the window to lure people into the place. From the street, it's hard to know what the place is. Aliseo is stubbornly trying to go its own way, which is courageous and admirable in these tough times. But it may be trying a bit too hard.