By Heather Kenny for Chicago Reader
This summer chef-consultant Alan Lake took over Evanston’s much-loved Va Pensiero and transformed it into Pensiero Ristorante ―upgrading and refining the original concept rather than upending it, as the name suggests. Housed in the stately Margarita European Inn on a quiet side street, it still has that “special night out” feeling―I’m sure it’ll be packed on Northwestern’s parents’ weekend. But now it’s got something more.
Italian cuisine hews strongly to tradition, and any variation can cause consternation in the homeland. When I ordered sliced beef with carrot puree once in Italy, an Italian dining companion declared that no countryman of his would ever dream of ordering such a thing. This strict mindset allows traditional recipes to flourish, but doesn’t leave much room for experimentation. But here Lake is free to add Asiago cheese to fish―heresy! Specifically he adds it to linguine diavolo, a spicy pasta dish of shrimp and oysters (mostly shrimp) with lobster essence, where it melts to impart a subtle, slippery texture to the perfectly al dente linguine without being gooey.
Likewise I’ve never had pork belly that was so unabashedly fatty and meltingly tender as Lake’s in an Italian restaurant; it’s served with exotic mushrooms and a crispy risotto cake. He also deconstructs crostini alla Toscana (a Tuscan appetizer of hot chicken liver paste on bread), serving soft whole grilled chicken livers speared on sprigs of rosemary. A condiment of jam made with onions and sweet marsala wine from Sicily―practically a foreign country to northern Italians―showed a deft ability to cross regional borders in a single recipe. Seemingly weightless ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, accompanied by cubes of sauteed tart apples and sprinkled with pistachios, played up the savory nature of a familiar dish.
A special of veal saltimbocca was perhaps a little heavy for a hot August night―I actually enjoyed it more as leftovers the next day, when the earthy flavors had settled down a little bit. The accompanying crispy fried polenta, perfectly creamy on the inside, made me wish I knew the secret to replicating it at home. Diver scallops with sweet-sour caponata and a prosecco-orange beurre blanc was a more weather-appropriate choice. The menu will continue to change seasonally under permanent chef Christian Fantoni, who was brought on just this week.
A list of historic cocktails seemed a little jarring in this context, and held little appeal before a large meal. Better to stick to the wine list, which offers reasonably priced bottles from all over Italy and a good selection by the glass.