I finally made it to Merlo last night. It's been the subject of some speculation on the board, so even though I'm not a note-taker when I dine, I thought I could at least give some general impressions, with specific comments on a few dishes. There were only two of us, so we couldn't really get a broad tasting of the menu.
The family that owns the place is from the town of Vignola just south of Bologna, and they previously operated a restaurant in Bologna. Their cooking is thus from the region of Emilia-Romagna. The husband, wife, and two sons manage everything, although wife is in charge of the kitchen. Wait-staff is pleasant and well-trained. The back dining room is stunning in its warmth and simplicity.
A basket of home-made foccacia and some kind of light-as-air cracker is at the table. Our two appetizers were a tuna carpaccio, and spinach farfalle in a rabbit ragu. The tuna was perfect-- a good sized portion surrounded by a simple salad of field greens-- but the pasta in rabbit ragu was the highlight of the entire meal. We should have ordered a second, since I spent the drive home planning the next dinner with this dish at the center.
Second courses were herb-encrusted mini-lamb chops with roasted potatoes, and sliced sirloin with button mushrooms and arugula. The lamb chops were good, but
very small, and if I were really hungry I wouldn't order this again. The roasted potatoes were actually an inverted "form" of sliced oven baked potatoes. The sirloin with mushrooms was perfectly cooked and a substantial portion. I liked this plate more than the lamb, but the menu is so extensive that it might be a while before I would do a repeat of either of these two dishes.
Our one shared dessert was a white pudding with raspberries and whipped cream. Nothing frilly here, just fresh ingredients that were simply prepared and perfectly paired.
The menu seemed well thought out-- about a dozen appetizers both cold and hot, the same number of pastas, maybe 8 or 10 meat dishes, a half dozen fish dishes, and about 10 desserts.
Merlo is not Spiaggia expensive, but it is not cheap. The total bill for two was $162, which included a very nice SanGiovese for $33. Nevertheless, everything about this place was so wonderful, I felt we got our money's worth.
A while back Pauletta had asked about a restaurant that featured "Mario Batali style cooking." Although I continue to think that the old Marco! on Clybourn served the best example of this, Marco's new incarnation in the same location seems to have failed even before it opened. In the last 9 months, no progress has been made on his renovation, and the place seems to be permanently boarded up.
Merlo is not a bad pretender. It offers very good, straightforward almost rustic cooking, with emphasis on the best ingredients prepared in the simplest manner possible. I remember reading in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, how astonished he was upon working with a master Italian chef for the first time. It was a revelation to him that the essence of this guy's art was to just prepare and pair great (but un-fancy) ingredients, doing as little as necessary to highlight their essential quality and flavor. To me, this describes the cooking at Merlo.
2638 N. Lincoln (at Kenmore)
Reservations not required but probably recommended. We didn't have any, and I had to push the owner a little to give us a table in the beautiful back room.