"Zeal: noun: A strong feeling of interest and enthusiasm that makes someone very eager or determined to do something."
-- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
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Chef Vince's Zeal680 Mall Drive, Schaumburg, (847) 995-0188, chefvinceszeal.com
Cuisine: Italian-leaning small plates and big plates
Setting: Casual, comfortable, conversation-friendly
Entrees: $8 to $38
Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday; 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday
When it comes to cooking, chef Vince Pecora's zeal for the craft overflows, so it's no wonder he chose Zeal as the name of his new Schaumburg restaurant.
Pecora is a familiar face on the Northwest suburban restaurant scene. He's chefed at a handful of popular spots including Papa Clemenza's and Tornado Bros. in Palatine, Vince's Hoffman House in Hoffman Estates and Ciao Baby! in Barrington. Lest you forget his lineage, a swirling red tornado adorns the Zeal signage.
In this latest venture, Pecora updated the former Vidalia Steakhouse and has given Schaumburg an affordable, casual spot where he showcases some of his familiar Italian fare and dabbles in other world cuisines.
The restaurant features a large eat-in bar area with high-topped seating and a handful of booths. It's a friendly spot to grab a cocktail -- like the not-too-sweet muddled orange and fig vodka Clemenza -- while waiting on a table or listening to live music (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday). On the evening we visited, musicians covered tunes from the '60s and beyond, which moved several patrons to shake their groove thing.
The fun-loving decor at Zeal helps get diners in the mood for a casual dining experience. Idioms and witty sayings are scrawled across the blackboard walls in the bar, and my favorite touch in the dining room is tornado-shaped lights. Booths and tables are comfortably spaced so you don't feel like you're eavesdropping on other diners. I'm not won over by flat-screen TVs visible from virtually every seat in the dining room, however. Even with the sound off, they're a distraction and sometimes I want to tune out the day's disasters and ball games and enjoy a meal and conversation with friends.
The menu is fun-loving as well -- not just in its descriptions of the food, but because it lights up. Seriously! Pecora said he came across the LED-lit menus on a trip to Asia and knew he wanted them for his restaurant. This diner's aging eyes certainly appreciated the techno-touch. (Another neat touch: coffee mugs that change color as they cool!)
The first food description that grabbed us was for the Burnt Pasta; "Chef Vince got lost in a movie, forgot, came back and burnt tasted good."
The spaghetti dish certainly wasn't the prettiest thing on the table with its charred black patina and all, but it was oddly delicious in a purely homemade way.
We also liked the Guacamole Wontons, a piquant Asian-Mexican mashup of mashed avocado folded into crispy triangles from the pan of Pecora's second in charge, chef Lauren Boveri. Pecora says his Cheesy Beef Egg Rolls (Italian beef wrapped in wontons) are popular starters as well.
After the tapas/appetizer section, the menu flows into Sliders on Steroids (lobster, siracha-spiked Kobe beef and horseradish-kissed short ribs) and salads that are available as a side or an entree and with the option of chicken or shrimp.
Hearts of palm were a surprise in the signature Zeal Salad and went well with the salami and balsamic dressing. The Umbriago salad, Zeal's spin on Ceasar salad, came topped with perfectly grilled asparagus spears and a pleasantly creamy dressing that I wish there had been more of. Even ordered as half-plates, the salads were quite generous.
For our main courses, we stuck to the Half Plate section of the menu and found the portions more than ample. Chef Lauren's Stuffed Meatballs are over-the-top. Diced prosciutto, ham, salami coppacola and cheese are packed into baseball-sized ground meat orbs and presented on a mound of creamy, herbed polenta. The two meatballs might have looked skimpy next to the plate of perfectly seared soy-, honey- and maple-glazed scallops (an evening special), but I think adding a third meatball to the plate might trigger artery hardening.
Braicole is a staple at many Italian spots, and Pecora's version comes to the table tender and not at all overcooked. Raisins and pine nuts add textural interest to the rolled flank steak and the Pinot Noir-spiked marinara elevates the taste.
I'm glad we passed on the full entrees -- jambalaya, lamb osso bucco, a huge pork chop and eggplant Parmesan among them -- because there was dessert to be tackled.
On the dessert front, we certainly were overzealous. Four of us each could have taken a few bites of decadent, moist, multilayered chocolate cake (which cost twice as much as the other desserts, so consider yourself warned) and left happy, but we each gravitated toward a different item and next thing we knew four desserts were in front of us. One bite of my friend's caramel gelato studded with chocolate chips and a locally famous caramel corn was all I needed to know that my cannoli cake was headed for a doggy bag. Not that the cannoli cake wasn't good -- I devoured all its creamy, pistachio-flecked layers the next day -- but gelato is not something that can be packed to-go and the scoops were plenty big to share.
The orange sorbet served in a hollowed-out orange provided a refreshing end to the meal and should not be discounted for its simplicity.
Our meal was well-paced and our server was knowledgeable about the menu and friendly, and it was nice to see chef Pecora taking a few minutes away from the kitchen here and there to visit with guests in the dining room.
Just another example of his zeal.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.