Now Playing

Prosciutto and arugula pizza; photography by Anthony Tahlier

That’s Italian!

by Selena Fragassi | NS magazine | January 3, 2013

Finding a truly authentic Italian restaurant worthy of Chicago’s Little Italy can be as challenging as knowing how long to cook pasta to get to its perfect al dente form. Some get close but not quite perfect, often out of a curiosity to be too daring in altering age-old recipes or, like most chain options, settling for generic dishes that are forgettable.

So when a new establishment hits the mark, it is celebrated—a reaction fitting for Ravinia’s newbie Merlo’s, a time-stamped Italian eatery that is poised to become Highland Park’s newest neighborhood staple. Where Merlo’s succeeds is in embracing tradition over trends, submitting to grandma’s demands, stealing some of her recipes and even naming an entrée after her: Nanna’s Gravy, a rich pot roast served over rigatoni.

Merlo’s works in part because it has two Italians at the helm. The chef, Joe Farina, honed his skills with the Rosebud Group, and owner John Merlo made his name as owner of beloved city staples Bacchus and Avenue M. Vintage portraits of Italian life dot the walls and Rat Pack music sets the scene. The extensive menu begins with the aptly named Taylor Street Italian beef sliders, a plate of tenderized meat drizzled with au jus and housemade giardiniera.

Portions at Merlo’s are more than generous and lend well to family-style sharing, including bacon-roasted Brussels sprouts dusted with shaved red onion and Parmesan cheese; traditional spaghetti and meatballs; and a hearty chicken marsala. The well-stocked selection of wine varietals pair well with entrées; the server’s suggestion of a 2009 Mazzoni Toscano Rosso perfectly complemented the red sauce mussels.

Merlo’s has some work to do on its pacing (a three-course dinner took nearly two hours to complete) and its dessert options—the cannoli shell was too crisp while the tiramisu lacked flavor—but the main courses are a quintessential Italian feast cooked just right.

581 Roger Williams Ave., Highland Park

Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm
Dinner Mon.-Thu. 4-10pm
Fri. 5-11pm, Sat. noon-11pm Sun. noon-10pm

Appetizers $8-$14, salads $6-$12, pizzas and pastas $12-$18, entrées $12-$25

What to Eat
Brussels sprouts, Sunday meatball salad, baked cavatelli, chicken marsala

All in a Name
When it came time to name the venue, restaurateur John Merlo opted for his Italian family’s surname, which translates to “blackbird.” For the Taylor Street Italian beef sliders, Merlo’s honors the famed street known as Chicago’s Little Italy.

Ask for the Specials
Merlo’s daily specials are often the cause du jour, from a hearty crab-topped grouper to housemade burrata and white or red sauce mussels.

Many of the restaurant’s specialties are recipes straight from Merlo’s or chef Joe Farina’s home cupboard, including Joe’s Mama’s stuffed artichoke and Nanna’s Gravy, a red wine pot roast.