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Photo: Anthony Tahlier. Sicilian white anchovy pizza.

Italian Revolution

by Michael Nagrant | NS magazine | October 1, 2012

I live in the heart of Chicago’s Logan Square, but when I need to get away from the trains, traffic and crowds, there is always Highland Park. Few things are more restorative than a drive north along Sheridan Road, scoping the lakefront mansions with their broad lawns and breathtaking lakefront vistas. And while this slightly urban ’burb makes for a pleasant visit, it has rarely been about destination dining. Now, thanks to Moderno, a new restaurant from Chef Proprietor John des Rosiers and Executive Chef Phil Rubino, that’s all changed.

With its barrel-vaulted ceiling, tufted leather banquettes, industrial metal seating and a red buzzing neon sign that says “Revolution” backwards, Moderno feels like a café-meets-Italian-nightclub for the hip kids. Maybe the coolest design element at Moderno is that each of the banquettes has differing lengths of metal pipe inlaid in long columns throughout the restaurant. It creates the effect of a pipe organ set up in an old Gothic church.

This church feel is fairly appropriate because one can get downright worshipful after a bite of chef Rubino’s arancini, risotto balls stuffed with creamy mascarpone and fresh herbs—the best I’ve ever had. Most suffer from a density or dryness, but the ones at Moderno are cloud light and dissolve in a heartbeat—leaving a touch of lilting citrus zest.

Moderno bills itself as modern Italian. It is Italian in form, with a bevy of pastas, pizzas and roasts, but ultimately it’s global in flavor. Indian ingredients, as in a cumin-dusted, yogurt-sauced grilled chicken leg or garam masala spiced lamb, figure prominently. From the “Smalls” section of the menu, crunchy roasted potatoes glazed in aioli featuring a shower of salty Grana Padano cheese are recognizable to tapas enthusiasts as an Italian riff on the Spanish standard patatas bravas.

An English cucumber and melon salad from the “Salads” section, featuring a crumbly soil of toasted pumpernickel crumbs, tufts of tarragon and pungent blue cheese, is almost the kind of thing you’d expect to find at a molecular gastronomy temple like Alinea, but it is far too overpowering for this dish to meld well. The blue cheese’s pungency demands a sweet foil and would be best served on its own as part of a cheese plate.

Such quibbles are forgotten as I dig into a deep bowl of housemade farfalle from the “Pastas” section. I am smitten by the sharp bow tie pasta tossed with slivers of smoky trout, velvety crème fraîche, juicy bits of mushroom and a smattering of toasted peanuts.

The pizza dough is more of a flatbread and could use a touch more leavening. But the Sicilian white anchovy pizza with its flanks of briny anchovy surrounded by gin-cured bacon and a purée of grilled scallions is undeniably original. It’s also surprisingly popular. I always thought that fish on pizza was a Fear Factor kind of thing, but three nearby tables have also ordered and devoured these pies within the last hour.

Cocktails like a Modern Fashioned, an elixir of spicy Bulleit rye, simple syrup, citrus and a dash of Angostura bitters, are strong and cut through the rich food. The La Fame Madre, a martini with ginger-infused vermouth and fresh grapefruit juice, is refreshing, the kind of thing that conjures an afternoon on a terrace in Florence toasting to one’s good fortune for stealing such a luxurious moment of relaxation.

Really, the only glitch in the entire enterprise is that on a busy weekend night, Moderno shares that common problem for popular restaurants: It’s super crowded. By 8pm, the place is so packed that what started out as a decent pace between dishes becomes an excruciating wait. When our 12-hour confit of pork drizzled with Grenache vinegar and Baharat spice finally arrives, the meat is dry, though the Grenache vinegar is a beautiful wetting agent.

The Black Maple Hill bourbon on Moderno’s menu (a steal at $13 a glass) also wets the whistle quite nicely as we wait for dessert. There are more treasures to discover, like sugar-dusted zeppole, hot from the deep fryer dripping with orange caramel, and tartufo or cream puffs rolled in chocolate cake crumbs and stuffed with milk chocolate mousse. They say you can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy. Feasting on such dessert delights here in beautiful Highland Park, I can assure you that for as long as places like Moderno exist, I will always be a suburbanite at heart.

1850 Second St., Highland Park, 847.433.8600,
Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm
Dinner Mon.-Thu. 5-10pm
Fri. 5-11pm, Sat. noon-11pm Sun. noon-10pm
Small plates $8-$14, salads $9-$12, pizzas and pastas $11-$16, large plates $14-$38, desserts $7-$9

What To Eat
Arancini, farfalle, white anchovy pizza and zeppole 

Wait, There’s More
Chef des Rosiers has two other spots, the modern-food focused Inovasi in Lake Bluff and the gourmet takeout spot Wisma with three locations: Lake Bluff, Chicago’s French Market and Libertyville.

Made From Scratch
The pastas, like spaghetti rolled out and hand-cut on a chitarra (a metal wire rack that looks like a bunch of guitar strings), are made daily in-house.

Down on the Farm
Many of the ingredients at Moderno come from local farms—eggs from Meadow Haven and fruit from Mick Klug in Michigan.

The Real Deal
Chef Rubino has quite the pedigree. He’s a veteran of Spiaggia, A Mano and L2OChef Rubino has quite the pedigree. He’s a veteran of Spiaggia, A Mano and L2O.