Sometimes in our quest for the new, the cutting edge, we overlook some old standbys. I cannot recall the last time I saw a Chowhound review of Va Pensiero in Evanston, for example. I hadnt eaten there for nearly a decade and initially resisted revisiting it. My mistake. After a late afternoon stop on Saturday to see Finding Neverland (see it!), we went to Va Pensiero for dinner. We made a reservation and needed it.
The restaurant is located below street level in a building that also houses the Margarita Inn European Inn, an upscale bed and breakfast. The restaurant is split into two large rooms with the cloakroom and maitre ds desk separating them. Our room was decorated in nearly monochromatic browns (not especially attractive), but subdivided in such a way as to be roomy and quite comfortable. The restaurant has a large selection of paintings by a local artist hanging on its wallsall for sale. We both found that a bit surprisingand off-putting. We want to go to dinner, not visit a gallery. It didnt help that the work is all by one artist. She-who-must-be-obeyed and I have very different tastes but neither cared for the artwork. (I should note that the restaurants website includes an entire section devoted to the artist, including a link to her own website.)
However, Im here to report on the food. Va Pensiero prints its menu every day and embraces what I believe to be the virtue of offering a relatively small selection of items in each categoryall superbly done. Far better that than a kitchen that purports to be able to reproduce an telephone-directory-sized list of everything. In any event, there were seven appetizers ($7-$9), two soups, three salads, five pastas ($16-$19), and ten entrees ($19-$28).
The night we visited, the appetizers covered a wide range from grilled Hen of the Wood mushrooms to garlic-braised octopus, black (squid ink) risotto with braised calamari and Tobiko caviar to sauteed chicken livers. We split a small serving of the gnocchi alla Romana in a mushroom-truffle sauce. Three crescent-moon-shaped gnocchi were exquisitely presented. Any reservations about the generosity of the portion were immediately overcome; the gnocchi were just exactly firm enough and richly flavored. Three were not a filling portion by any stretch but were a perfect appetizer.
They left us wanting more and I opted for a simple salad to counter the richness of the gnocchi. Watercress salad with goat cheese, sliced red grapes, and pine nuts with a citrus vinaigrette. The perfect foil. Again, not a large portion but a nearly ideal one. The vinaigrette was the ideal choice and the salad was surprisingly lightly dressedthank god. This is one area where both she-who and I concur: less is most definitely more. You need to know its there but the salad should be the star, not the dressing.
Entrees, like appetizers, run a gamut. Muscovy duck, short ribs, portobello piccata, jumbo sea scallops, New York strip, and pork tenderloin to name a few. Each sported a tempting (and quite complementary) side. Things I might not ordinarily have considered, I found myself pondering simply because of the accompaniment. As one example, the pork tenderloin was served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes. Ah but it was dressed with a caramelized fennel, fig-port wine sauce. The portobello piccata shared a plate with a fallen spinach soufflé filled with goat cheese and artichokes and accompanied by cherry tomatoes and capers. Almost every entrée was intriguing, impressive, or both.
Dubious about our ability to finish if we had too much, we opted to skip the pasta course and dove straight into our entrees. She-who had red snapper on a bed of baby spinach and Sicilian couscous, all adorned with an olive-pine-nut-tomato sauce ($27). I had the veal saltimbocca (a dish I love but often have trouble finding), with a truffled polenta and shiitake/mushroom/asparagus sauce ($26!). Im a bigger fish eater than she-who, so I was surprised that she ordered a fish entrée. The fish was cooked perfectly and the accompaniments were just right. (I will confess, however, that Im not quite sure what was Sicilian about the couscous. It seemed pretty straightforward to me.) The saltimbocca was very good. Perhaps a trifle disappointing or, more to my point, not the best Ive had. Why not? Hmmmm. The veal was a touch on the dry side and the prosciutto wrapping just slightly overdone (meaning, too long in the pan). The sage was evident in the flavors but I was surprised not a see a garnish of fresh sage. Not a negative, just a surprise. The asparagus stalks were just a trifle too undercooked but the sauce was a nice accompaniment. My criticisms notwithstanding, I enjoyed my dish.
(I accompanied the veal with a glass of Italian Tocai which, I guessed (and taste confirmed) resembled a good Hungarian tokay. Medium-bodied, crisp, flavorful. Let me reproduce the following description of the same bottle by Il Fornaio, who also features it: This refreshing and delicious white wine is produced from 100% tocai friulano grapes grown in the Friuli region. Its vibrant floral and peach aromas and flavors combined with its fresh lingering finish and excellent balance make it a great pairing with lighter pastas, seafood and poultry dishes. Amen. I should note that the by the glass selection was a little too abbreviated for me, surprising since the restaurants wine list is superb. Va Pensiero is justifiably proud of its award-winning list and devotes several pages on its website to what seems to be a complete listing. Although I havent been back to Spiaggia for some time either, I cant imagine that it has a much better list of Italian wines. Va Pensieros is comprehensive, varied, interesting, and intriguing and, with a larger group, Id eagerly try some of these bottles. Since she-who doesnt drink, Im usually constrained to limit myself to the by the glass listings, hence my disappointment with that selection.)
Dessert. Eight items plus the chefs selection of three. All $7, except the last, which is $11. Only one chocolate item (the house classic, a budino, of which more in a moment). Very Italian selections, leaning away from the typically American desire for excessive sweets. The one surpriseand disappointment, I confesswas that the cheese plate listed on the website is no longer available. In fact, there is no cheese plate at all. We passed up the walnut/Mission fig tart, the gelati (a disappointing selection of chocolate, strawberry, or vanilla/cinnamon), and the Amaretto zabaglione in favor of the chefs selection: a miniature budino (bittersweet chocolate truffle with a melted chocolate interior and mocha gelato), vanilla panna cotta with raspberry coulis, and apple crostata with vanilla/cinnamon gelato plus caramel sauce and an almond cookie. The budino may be the best of all the molten chocolate desserts Ive ever had. Sufficiently sweet to balance the strong bittersweet chocolate, intensely chocolatereally ideal. The crust for the apple crostata was similarly among the best Ive ever had the pleasure of tasting. The apple filling was good, but it was the crust that was exceptional. Im not a fan of panna cotta and so have little useful to say about it other than it seemed fine to me. (Encroaching age forces me, these days, to choose decaf. I must put in a plug for their coffee here. Good, strong, full-flavored coffee. Im only sorry I couldnt have had the caffeinated version. What I had, instead, was nevertheless, really, really good.)
And here is where I pose my question. Our server, Trish, was excellent. She had more than a fair complement of tables and, until the very end of our stay, she was always present at the right moment, helpful without being intrusive. (I should also plug the other wait staff. Everyone who comes to your table, whether they are filling your glass, presenting or removing a dish, is unfailingly polite, quick, and unobtrusive. The staff are clearly well-trained and it showsand is appreciated.) Trish was knowledgeable, pleasant, and a pleasure to deal with. At the end of the meal, when she delivered the check, though, she did something I have to admit Ive never in my life seen. She clipped her business card to it. It gave her name, her title (Captain), and the basic restaurant information. All very tasteful. But why on earth would she give us her card? More to the point, why does she have a card? Am I missing something? Could someone enlighten me?
Be warned of one other item: they advertise a selection of dishes on their website. Those dishes are not only not on offer, Trish said she had been there for over a year and did not even remember some of the ones we inquired about ever being served during her tenure. That said, the dishes that are listed are a good indication of the style of what you can expect.
In sum: a very enjoyable experience. I should have returned long ago. Although the décor is a bit staid, the restaurant is nevertheless very comfortable. The service, from top to bottom, is excellent and well worthy of imitation by others. Despite my criticisms about my entrée, I would not hesitate to go back and look forward to doing so.