Communal Italian dishes lure diners to Near
Is it Italian? Mediterranean? California/Italian?
Near Restaurant in the downtown Barrington Commons mini-mall claims to be Italian, but chef/owner Gaetano Nardulli strays from traditional preparations to add his own creative twists.
A suburban native, Nardulli, a graduate of Kendall College culinary school in Chicago, spent a year working at restaurants in Italy and honed his skills at several high-profile restaurants in Chicago, including Spiaggia and Schwa. His eclectic background shows in the inventiveness of his work at Near.
Nardulli and friends transformed the space that formerly housed a catering company and other more traditional Italian eateries over the years into two attractive contemporary rooms decorated in today's neutral color palette. No red-checked tablecloths or maps of Italy here. Rather, nicely framed black-and-white photos of Italian architecture give the only hint of the cuisine theme.
The spacious lounge with its full bar remained empty on a recent Friday night until about 7 p.m. Apparently not attracting an after-work crowd, the bar stays open till 1 or 2 a.m. and offers extra dining space for any overflow from the dining room.
Wine drinkers will find an interesting, mostly Italian list that knowledgeable servers can guide them through. The list is strong on reds, which complement most of the dishes, including some of the fish. Diners also may bring their own wines and pay a corkage fee of $15 a bottle.
The menu is compact, all on one page, except for the separate dessert menu. It contains just three categories: shared plates, pastas and entrees. Tapas-style shared plates are emphasized, with a total of 11, followed by moderately sized portions of five house-made pastas and just four entrees. Clearly, this is not your grandparents' Italian restaurant.
"Shared plates are more communal," Nardulli explained. Although portion sizes are smaller than entrees, they are larger than traditional appetizers and provide plenty of bites for several people to share.
Our server suggested we order all of our courses at once to best allow the kitchen to properly pace the service. While I found that rule a bit rigid, the three of us followed her advice, which worked smoothly. It just took us a bit of time to make all of those decisions at once.
We ordered three shared plates, beginning with the intriguing fried chickpeas flavored with smoked paprika and accompanied by a variety of marinated olives. Not sure what to expect, we were not disappointed to receive a generous portion of individually flash-fried chickpeas, which definitely were finger food. They were crunchy, flavorful and a fun way to start a meal.
The other two plates arrived simultaneously: croquettes stuffed with braised lamb and raisins, topped with dollops of raisin purée, and Burrata cheese with toasted ciabatta bread and a jar of giardiniera relish, containing mild jalapeños, carrots, celery and pickling seasonings. We have not seen either dish duplicated on other area Italian tables.
Our favorite was the soft, creamy Burrata -- a fresh cow's milk cheese made from mozzarella and cream, which we spread on the ciabatta and garnished with the giardiniera. The combination of flavors was very satisfying, and we asked for more ciabatta so we could scoop up every bit of the cheese.
The deep-fried round croquettes were a bit dry, although we enjoyed the pairing of savory lamb and sweet raisins. These would benefit from a dipping sauce of some kind. The good-sized portion of eight meatball-sized croquettes was almost too much food, when combined with the other two dishes.
We then chose a bowl of risotto to share, which on this night was accented with small squares of sautéed prosciutto, warm pieces of cantaloupe, chives and a floral spice called grains of paradise. This playful twist on the classic prosciutto and melon combination was surprisingly light for risotto, which was al dente enough to remain crunchy but also stay sufficiently creamy.
Other pasta choices included fettuccine Bolognese; ravioli with cod brandade, raisins, pine nuts and pecorino Romano and gnocchi with tomato sauce, braised pork loin and pecorino fresco. Because we wanted to try an entree, we wisely opted not to order a second pasta.
I should mention that chef Nardulli came out of the kitchen several times during the evening and stopped at each table to get feedback from guests and thank them for coming. He even bussed some dishes on his way back to the kitchen -- the mark of a caring and hands-on restaurateur.
The catch of the day, mahi mahi, was a good choice for this night's preparation with mushroom purée, fingerling potatoes, radicchio and shrimp reduction. The fish was perfectly cooked, and the hearty accompaniments were appropriate for a winter's night. I did find the overall flavor a little too salty. I also quibbled with the printed description including the word "shrimp." There were no shrimp on the plate, as I'd expected.
Accompaniments included with all of the courses vary with the seasons and the chef's whims. However, at this time of year, the entree center-of-the-plate proteins -- fish, pork loin, chicken breast and braised shortribs -- are likely to remain constant for awhile.
Four desserts are available, and all sounded good, so choosing one to share took much discussion and questions of our patient server. We settled on one described as lemon curd with coffee gel, brown butter cake and crumbled amaretto cookie crumbs. The combination of flavors, best eaten together, was an excellent contrast of the sour lemon curd with the not-overly-sweet and very light cake.
Near has much potential to become a favorite restaurant, especially for couples and groups of friends who enjoy the companionship of communal dining.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not review restaurants it cannot recommend.
Near Restaurant108 Barrington Commons Court, Barrington, (847) 382-1919, near-restaurant.com
Cuisine: Contemporary Italian
Setting: Modern casual
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday