Restaurant Review: Discover Moderno, North Shore’s Italian gem

Amber Gibson, Columnist

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For authentic Italian food, you might be tempted to head into Chicago to Café Spiaggia or Piccolo Sogno, but I recently took the Metra going the opposite direction and discovered some incredible Italian cuisine in Highland Park. It’s merely a 30-minute Metra ride to Moderno, 1850 Second St., and well worth the trip. Hop off the train and the restaurant is just two blocks away, offering some of the tastiest and most affordable Italian food north of the city. Evanston has Dave’s Italian Kitchen, but the food at Moderno is more thoughtful and refined.

To start, bread service consists of fried pizza dough squares sprinkled with Grana Padano cheese. You’ll likely finish them off and be enticed to order a pizza to share. Two solid choices are the heavier pancetta, gouda and bechamel pie topped with a fried egg and the spiced lamb, arugula and yogurt pizza inspired by Middle Eastern flavors.

A major theme at Moderno is that nearly everything is made in-house, from homemade creme fraiche to house-smoked trout that is paired with hen of woods mushrooms and peanuts in a farfalle dish. All the pastas are handmade every morning, too, as the menu proudly proclaims. The farfalle was one of my favorite dishes, a successful combination I’d never tasted before. The coin-shaped corzetti streaked with vibrant green pesto dish was a close second, though; the creamy sheep’s milk ricotta is accented with crispy capers. The hand-stamped corzetti, reminiscent of sand dollars, are almost too pretty to eat.

Meat lovers will salivate over the confit pork shoulder, which marinates for 12 hours in grenache vinegar and spices. Fresh-caught seafood, with preparations changing daily, won’t disappoint either. On my most recent visit, I enjoyed a grey mullet with freshly shucked garbanzo beans, scallions and green olives.

For dessert, the tartufi are a must. “Tartufo” means truffle in Italian], and these cream puffs filled with chocolate mousse, then rolled in pulverized chocolate cake crumbs, strongly resemble the subterranean mushrooms.

“These are the best thing to have in your fridge when you stumble home drunk,”  chef/owner John des Rosiers says.

When you make a reservation, ask for “Mamma’s Table,” an alcove booth that seats up to five. You get your own privacy curtain, lighting and music controls. Plus, chances are executive chef Phil Rubino will send you some off-menu bites and drinks he’s experimenting with, on the house. How’s that for a warm welcome?