My recent dinner at Villa Verone got off to a bit of a rocky start when our reservation for two was nowhere on the books on a busy Saturday night before an Elgin Symphony Orchestra concert at the nearby Hemmens Auditorium. Fortunately, a table for two opened and we were seated without much of a wait.
There was a wait, however, before a server showed up to take our drink order ... and another chunk of time passed before our cocktails arrived. To give the staff the benefit of the doubt, all of the tables in the small storefront dining room were filling up or filled by this time, about 6:30 p.m.
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Villa Verone13 Douglas Ave., Elgin, (847) 742-0263, villaverone.net
Cuisine: Southern Italian
Setting: Old World villa
Entrees: $13.95 to $21.95
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
As its name suggests, the restaurant is designed to resemble an old Italian villa. Five years ago owner Pietro Verone, an industry veteran, opened this downtown Elgin spot at 13 Douglas Ave., modeled after his original Villa Verone a few suburbs to the south in Geneva.
The bartender mixed a credit-worthy Manhattan and a properly chilled call-brand vodka martini, both of which were worth the wait. Crusty white bread and a good olive oil arrived at our table while we decided on our food order.
The menu consists of traditional Italian dishes. "If somebody wants froufrou stuff, my place is not for them," says Verone, who credits his mother with teaching him how to cook.
To start, we decided to share the asparagi appetizer -- fresh asparagus wrapped in bacon, grilled and topped with Gorgonzola sauce. A pretty presentation crisscrossed the long asparagus on a square-shaped dinner plate. Flavor combinations were very good, but the bacon was overly charred.
Soup and salad come a la carte and we ordered one small house salad and one cup of minestrone. I recommend both. The salad was a toss of romaine, other lettuces and radicchio, cherry tomatoes, and red and yellow bell pepper strips, lightly dressed with a tart vinaigrette. Vegetables were plentiful in the minestrone, which also was light enough to leave room for our entrees and dessert.
There were 16 pastas from which to choose, including a few made with fresh noodles, like the rotolo filled with ricotta, spinach and prosciutto in a light tomato cream sauce; pappardelle with chicken, spinach and roasted garlic in a goat cheese sauce; and lasagna.
I finally decided on a simple beef ravioli with homemade marinara sauce. This classic dish was well-executed with a good-quality ground beef and a superb red sauce that ranks with the best authentic Italian restaurants around. It was full of flavor and just the right consistency. Tableside application of grated Parmesan and fresh-ground pepper were the ideal accents.
Our entree choice was capriccio marino, a blend of clams, shrimp, mussels and squid in a slightly spicy tomato broth over a generous portion of linguine. The "broth" was really a sauce, making this dish a stew rather than a seafood soup. The sauce overpowered the natural flavors of the shellfish, so seafood lovers may prefer to order an alternative dish, such as tilapia oreganata.
Other menu descriptions that looked appealing include cavatelli casarecci, homemade dumplings with chicken and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce; Chicago-style chicken Vesuvio; or one of four classic veal preparations.
About a half-dozen dessert choices were listed on a small blackboard that our server brought to our table. Tiramisu is the only dessert made in-house, he said, so we ordered a slice to share. It was appropriately light, with the right proportions of sponge cake, mascarpone, coffee flavor and grated chocolate -- an excellent way to end a meal.
A jazz quartet was setting up as we were getting ready to depart. We're told they play the first and third Saturdays of the month, starting at 8 p.m. Perhaps another time.
Casual diners would be wise to avoid those peak times before events at the Hemmens, when servers can get overwhelmed. Also, take a hint from the number of menu items listed in each section to learn that pasta is Villa Verone's forte.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants we cannot recommend.