There are days when I work really hard. Most days, in fact. And then there are the afternoons spent on the Italian job. It’s hard work, but someone has to do it, and I am a team player. I will always take one for the team. There are many advantages to the Italian job: Aperol spritzers, hand made pastas and handsome Italian men. “Amore mio, Bellissima! I have been waiting my whole life just for you!” This maybe an exaggeration, but uttered with such sincerity, you want to believe it. Generally, such an Italian job is found, where else? in Italy. However, I have recently discovered a little spicy meatball of Italian place right here in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. On the patio of Nando Milano Trattoria, the spritzers are ice cold, the food delicious and the hot Italian men? Well, they are easy on the eyes. This, my friends, is the five-hour lunch territory. Time flies when you are having fun and drinking Italian wine.
When a good friend suggested we have a week day lunch at Nando Milano, I was not at all ready for the way my afternoon unfolded. I was prepared for a session of great girl talk, some delicious Italian fare, maybe a cocktail or two. The following five hours became a blur of dishes and drinks and flirtatious remarks as Nando Milano embraced three ladies that lunch. Aperol spritzers gave way to prosecco and wine. Cocktails made their way to our table in a parade of flavors and colors at the whim of the handsome Dario (one of the most charming men I have ever encountered, the owner of Nando Milano). It didn’t matter what we ordered or did not order, things appeared table side with impressive consistency and ease, while we basked in the late September sun.
The wine list at Nando Milano is lovely and paired beautifully to the rustic Italian fare being served here. Prosecco, falanghina and valpolicella all make their appearances during lunch. However, the cocktails deserve your attention. “Have you ever had a negroni made by an Italian? No?! Bellissima, you have never had a negroni!” Magically, three of them appear as if from thin air. I have to tell you, negronis made by an Italian? Pretty damn delicious. Prosecco cocktail with muddled fresh strawberries and mint is delicately sweet and refreshing, just begging to be enjoyed with brunch. Aperol spritzers are made to evoke the memories of summers in Rome. Espresso martinis are dark and brooding, redolent of real Italian espresso and garnished with whole espresso beans. “This is a grown up cup of coffee, Bellissima!” The Nando signature cocktail arrives looking like an Italian flag, with scoops of lemon granita camouflaging a substantial amount of alcohol. Not to be missed is the house made limoncello, thick and smooth, rich with lemons, reminiscent of Sicilian sunshine. To answer your inevitable question: yes, we sampled them all. On a week day. At lunch. I told you I work hard! It’s the Italian job!
My affinity for great Italian food is well documented (see my previous article FOOD FRIDAY: Hot Italian Sequel). The food at Nando Milano does not disappoint. The fare here is simple and decidedly un-fussy. Beautiful locally produced burrata (Dario would not reveal his source, only that it’s made in Wisconsin) steals the show as part of a simple caprese salad. Melon, weeping with sugar sweet juices, comes draped in salty prosciutto slices so thin, they are translucent. Arancini comes oversized, evoking a good amount of inappropriate jokes, but as I cut into it, it is audibly crunchy on the outside, oozy and sensually soft on the inside.
What really melts my heart here is the pasta. Hand made daily, the pasta is achingly fresh, and comes barely adorned with other ingredients. Make no mistake: pasta is the star in your bowl. As is my habit, I ordered two of the most simple preparations. Spaghetti with black pepper and ricotta is a creamy tangle, smooth and unctuous, punctuated by bursts of heat. My favorite dish of the day, though, is the linguine with guanciale, onions and spicy tomato sauce. Perfect with a glass of valpolicella.
Our meal concludes with a slew of desserts. Much lauded tiramisu is very creamy and air-light and delicious. But the lemon granita, refreshing and cool and tart, suits me just fine.
I work hard most days and the Italian job has to be done. My new friend Dario kisses both of my cheeks as we say farewell. “Ciao, Bellissima! When will I see you again?” I promise to return. As I walk away, albeit not that steadily, I feel that late September sun on my face and I am instantly transported to Sicily. I think of flavors and colors and aromas I have experienced in the last few hours. Yes, indeed, the Italian job has to be done. Can I have some volunteers?