The challenge: Can you enjoy an authentic Italian dining experience without twirling pasta around your fork or dunking bread into shredded parmesan cheese floating in pools of olive oil? Nothing against noodles and delicious plates of "inis" and "onis," but do you dare strive for something outside of starches and sauces?
The answer is yes at Passero, the new trattoria-inspired Italian eatery in the heart of downtown Arlington Heights. There are ample pasta selections, but be ready to enjoy their creative spin on flavor-packed entrees that will enlighten your previous perceptions of Italian cuisine.
Passero, which is Italian for sparrow, opened more than a month ago in what looks like a tight space sandwiched between other storefronts on Campbell Street. But looks are deceiving. Once inside, you'll see small tables stretching from the cozy space in the front window down a white-walled hallway toward the rear dining area. Our table for two was actually in the hallway between dining rooms, but that didn't detract from the positive vibe and upscale-yet-casual feel of the place.
If you want to start with a drink, Passero features both beer and cocktail menus with options such as A Farewell to Arms with Don Q silver rum, Disaronno, Giffard apricot and fresh lime and a bourbon-based drink called Late Taverna Nights.
In addition to putting his own Italian heritage spin on dishes, chef Matt Peota also focuses on using local foods from surrounding communities. According to Passero's website, sourcing area ingredients means dishes also reflect the seasonality of the Midwest.
Right away, our ricotta + honey appetizer revealed the real secret of what makes Passero's diners raise their eyebrows in delight: All the ingredients work together to generate maximum flavor. The creamy mound of ricotta cheese drizzled with honey and adorned with candied bits of walnuts, rosemary and sea salt sitting on a thin slice of crusty Italian bread all came together like a flavor symphony.
Other starters from the "mozzarella bar" section of the menu include Burrata and Brussels with almonds, brown butter and speck (Italian-cured smoked meat) and a caprese appetizer featuring androetti ovoline mozzarella cheese along with roasted mighty vine tomato, fall pistachio pesto and olive oil. Additional small plates include calamari, meatballs and salads.
When it comes to selecting entrees, give Passero credit for providing a simple, unpretentious menu that highlights a few excellent dishes. When you read the menu description of the bucatini pomodoro pasta with san marzano tomato, roasted garlic, fresh basil and shaved Parmesan, you can practically smell it.
If you're into low-carb fare, I'd recommend what I ordered, the sausage and peppers entree from the "mains" section of the menu. It may appear simple, but the plate of Italian sausage, shishito peppers, cannellini beans and braised Tuscan kale all comes together for a spark of combined flavor jumping off your fork. My dining partner on this Friday evening selected the "nice piece of fish," which was a salmon filet with mighty vine tomato, garlic sauteed spinach and charred lemon. It looked like a rainbow on a plate. And if rainbows had a taste, I hope this would be the model.
I would have liked to have tried a side dish of pasta with my non-pasta entree. In mentioning that request to our server, she said that they were talking about offering that, but for now, the kitchen will only meet you halfway with a half pasta, half non-pasta dish. Perhaps if more diners ask for pasta on the side, it will show up on the menu soon.
Other dinner entrees include beef tagliata, described as char-crusted natural sirloin with Gorgonzola butter, mascarpone Yukon mashed potatoes and fried onion strings. There's also shrimp and polenta as well as chicken parm off the al forno section. The lunch menu, featuring sandwiches, soups, sliders and salads, is only available on Fridays and Saturdays.
Try saving room for dessert -- you'll be glad you did. In our case, the double dark chocolate chip gelato looked too good to pass up. Within minutes of ordering, our dish appeared at our table, which reflected the high level of service throughout the evening.
In between two generous scoops of multi-chocolate gelato stood a giant, round wafer cookie that looked like an unfurled ice cream cone but tasted much better. Again, all the ingredients combined put this dish over the top.
Also on the dessert menu was the peanut butter chocolate tart with an Oreo cookie crust and zeppole -- described as Italian fried doughnuts with pumpkin spice and salted caramel.
Overall, Passero definitely puts a nice accent on what it serves. Plus, it's different with each dish. The customized spin on traditional Italian favorites makes it worth a visit. However, don't rush through your meal. Take some time to notice how all the ingredients are woven together on your plate before the food hits your mouth. And, if you can, save room for dessert.
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5 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (224) 897-8900, eatpassero.com/
Cuisine: Trattoria-inspired Italian
Prices: Small plates: $11-$15; pastas: $15-$18; entrees: $18-$28
Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.