C'era Una Volta's authentic Italian a welcome change of pace in South Elgin
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Do you get that "Groundhog Day" wooziness driving down the South Elgin Randall Road corridor, which is bursting with monotonous businesses without much character? This may explain why so many diners hungry for a change of pace are filling the seats at seven-week-old C'era Una Volta.
Once upon a time (the literal translation of C'era Una Volta), owners Salvatore Trupiano and Nicola DiTrapani were kids in Sicily. Now they're bringing a lot of their familial food memories to life at this rustic yet modern eatery. Sal, who was the espresso barista at his family's restaurant when he was 12, comes from a construction background building countless restaurants in the area -- hence the modern granite bar but also the reclaimed wood and barn doors recalling the Sicilian countryside.
The restaurant offers two dining areas -- one a little quieter, casual and good for families with kids, and the other lively, large and abuzz with diners, servers and the show at the open kitchen. There's also a counter (think sushi bar) directly in front of the kitchen, which is perfect for solo diners to watch four or five cooks scuttling and searing and the pizziolo having his way with dough.
The main dining area at C'era Una Volta was humming with couples at two- and four-tops, Friday-night revelers eating and sipping at the bar and a gaggle of gals enjoying food and wine. People kept pouring into the place as we dined. It was cheerful, a little noisier than I prefer, but very welcoming when the complimentary freshly baked bread, caponata Siciliana and olive oil arrived at the table.
All of the pizza and bread is prepared on site and baked in a visible wood-burning brick oven. Trupiano says it took him more than month to perfect the bread recipe. Every morning that oven is still checking in at 500 degrees, an ideal temp to bake bread. It's flash-warmed right before it's served with the caponata. The mélange of olives, onions, eggplant and tomatoes is something his grandmother made monthly, so it was exciting for the family when it arrived at the table. This recipe, a little sweet but mostly savory, is a mix of grandma's appetizer and partner DiTrapani's food memories. In the age of restaurants offering a "bread program," meaning you have to pay for a basket of it before you even get to the appetizers, this is an authentic treat. Notice the omission of salt and pepper on the table. It's not unusual for modern chefs to feel as though their food is seasoned properly.
The cocktail list is intriguing, with many drinks using Italian elements. So I'm not sure why I chose a French Martini. But the vodka, pineapple and Chambord concoction was a perfect prelude. My dining partner had a Moretti, one of four beers on tap (the others are Stella, a Two Hearted Ale and a Two Brothers beer). Next time I'll try one listed under "Sal's Favorites" -- Italian-style drinks like a refreshing Aperol Spritzer or a Negroni. Cocktails go for $7-$9.
The wine list is sweeping, with fantastic descriptions of what one should expect in terms of mouthfeel and finish. There's a definitive wine bar atmosphere at the bar with a library storing more than 500 bottles. The owners plan to hearken back to Sicily with the introduction of an antique wine barrel with a spout. Plus, they want to feature the grapes of local wineries every month as the "house wine." Nice idea. They also plan to add live entertainment on the weekends.
Among the enticing options for appetizers is breaded C'era Goat Cheese ($12) served with house-made marinara and peppery arugula. Although I'm a sucker for grilled octopus (C'era's $16 version has arugula, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and balsamic glaze), my dining partner is not, so we ordered fried calamari with spicy sauce ($10). I grumbled about having had so much fried calamari in my life and why didn't we go for the gamberi at least (Tiger shrimp, pesto, pancetta and orange slice for $14)? I ate my words along with the best calamari that has ever passed my lips. Just a couple of tentacled portions and primarily Super Bowl-sized rings, the Thai squid was lightly breaded and absurdly tender. The portion was generous, not oily and a real winner.
I was puzzled about the price of the burrata starter ($19), but Trupiano says the creamy cheese is imported from Italy, super fresh and, frankly, expensive.
There's a separate bruschette menu featuring that wonderful baked bread crowned with various toppings ($10-$14). Any of the four would make a lovely starter from the classic to the signature with goat cheese, caramelized onions, red pepper, cherry tomatoes and walnuts.
Pizza ($10-$16) is a star here, emerging in 90 seconds from the 900-degree oven in nearly a dozen renditions. The Neapolitan/Sicilian dough mash up features a beautifully bubbled, char-spotted crust. The Margarita, a simple pie by which a restaurant's pizza should be measured, wins for using San Marzano tomatoes along with the requisite basil and mozzarella. I'd be tempted to try the mushroom and sausage, but apparently the pies featuring hot dogs are becoming popular at C'era. It's not an uncommon topping in Sicily. Ignite your Instagram account by posting a pic of your panna corn pizza -- the corn is sightly charred in the pizza oven and the pie is topped with panna and shaved Parmesan.
The menu offers seven salads, five sandwiches, minestrone and a soup of the day like Italian wedding or butternut squash made daily. Entrees, served with a house salad or a cup of soup, include balsamic glazed salmon, swordfish, a plate of grilled shrimp, octopus and calamari, chicken prepared piccata or Saltimboca style, and hearty plates like osso buco, lamb with polenta, a nice grilled filet mignon and my dining partner's choice, lobster mac and cheese. The heaping bowl of cavatappi noodles was drenched in a creamy cheddar and Gruyere sauce with sizable chunks of Maine lobster peeking out of the mix. Atop were four large grilled shrimp. It was impressive and flavorful, and I was incredibly jealous.
There are 11 pasta dishes and five more listed under Fresh Pasta, which I assumed meant it was cranked out in-house and would have that specific tenderness that only fresh pasta elicits. I chose the "fresh pasta" meat and cheese ravioli with Bolognese sauce. Instead of four or five large pillows of handmade pasta that I anticipated, I was presented with a plate of ravioli each about twice the size of a postage stamp that were anywhere between cold and tepid. I had my dining partner wipe the hot mac and cheese from his lips and try my pasta. He also pronounced it cold. The sauce was so disappointing I think I actually got angry and stopped eating a quarter of the way in. Instead of a deeply flavorful sauce made with carrots, celery, onions, wine, braised veal, beef or even minced chicken liver and finished with cream or milk, this sauce seemed like a raw tomato sauce with a smattering of ground meat. There was a nice dollop of ricotta on top, but I was disappointed in my choice.
Trupiano explained that the pasta is "fresh" as opposed to dried and is purchased locally through Rana in Bartlett (the company supplies fresh pasta in containers to local grocery chains like Jewel). I would try any of the other pastas (not listed under "fresh") like carbonara or with clam sauce, farfalle with salmon and others. The marinara is made daily, pesto is prepared in-house and Alfredo sauce is composed per order.
Desserts ($5-$10) range from Sicilian pistachio cheesecake to Limoncello mascarpone cake. However, only the lava cake and gelato are made in-house. The day we dined, ice cream lovers could choose among pistachio, Nutella, Zuppa Inglese, lemon and watermelon. Finish with an espresso or cappuccino.
Our server reminded us often that she was very new, but her kindness and calm were appreciated as we asked many questions about the menu.
C'era Una Volta also offers private party space and, with less than two months in business, it has already hosted a couple of celebrations. I'm certainly returning for the wood-fired pizza, a juicy glass of red and the best fried calamari in the state.
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C'era Una Volta
558 Randall Road, South Elgin, (224) 856-5245, ceraunavolta-se.com/
Setting: Rustic yet modern
Prices: Apps: $9-$19; pizzas: $10-$16; pastas: $10-$19; entrees: $14-$38
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 7 p.m. Sunday; 4 to 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.