Evanston’s Pensiero: Revisiting a New Version of an Old Favorite

I went into labor during a wine dinner at Va Pensiero 17 years ago, so I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the restaurant. I was sad when it closed earlier this year, even though I hadn’t been there in a long while.

But Margarita Inn owner Michael Pure had other plans. Reopened in July as “Pensiero,” a  name with a nod to the past, the new owner has lightened the feel of the restaurant. Gone are the heavy drapes; in are glass mosaic pieces by local artist, Chris Heisinger. The linens and paint have been updated, too. As the name “change” implies, it’s more of a facelift than a total do-over.

But the pricing is more approachable, and it’s possible to dine for under $50 a person, even with a number of courses. That’s a welcome change.

The menu is in a bit of flux. Consultant Alan Lake worked on combining some updates on old favorites with newer, lighter fare. But the Italian chef being brought in to run the restaurant fell through, and currently long-time Va P sous chef, Chuy Diaz, runs the kitchen. The new fall menu reflects the bounty of the season, with lots of greens, squash, and wild mushrooms.

The “Historic Cocktails” listed on the back of the menu were a lovely welcome. Try the Southside ($10), a blend of Hendrick’s gin, lemon juice, grapefruit bitters and mint. The vodka-based drinks were also winners, notably the Basil Cocktail (fresh basil, celery and peppercorn-infused vodka with ginger syrup and soda, $8) and the Bison Sour ($9), a frothy concoction with egg white.

Once duly libated, our initial hunger sated by focaccia, we moved on to dinner. Quaglie alla Griglia ($13), grilled semi-boneless quails with braised radicchio and aged balsamic vinegar, could have been moister. Loved the slightly bitter radicchio, though. The Pomodori e Burrata ($13) showcased juicy Creek Farm heirloom tomatoes with burrata cheese, a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream, drizzled with Tuscan olive oil and more aged balsamic. The cheese should have been a touch fresher, but it’s a winning combination.

We enjoyed the Rotolino al Caprino ($12), a spinach and goat cheese soufflé roll, especially the crispy artichokes a la Giudea. But the clear favorite was the Salsiccia e Pepperonata ($9), a modern take on sausage and peppers. It was super flavorful, and quite filling.

The Tagliatelle al Tartufo ($26) has been on the menu for years, but the presentation – it’s tossed in a hollowed-out wheel of Grana Padano – makes it worth ordering. Marred only by the overly al dente pasta, the sauce is subtly flavored with truffle and studded with wild mushrooms.

Though tasty, the Spaghetti “Del Corsaro” ($24) was skimpy on the seafood. A better choice is the Ippoglosso ai Porcini, roasted Alaskan halibut with sautéed greens and butternut squash, crowned with a porcini broth. And the Brasato al Chianti, braised short ribs in a Amarone reduction, was marred only by unseasoned soft polenta.

Sergio, the long-time pastry chef for Va Pensiero, is still around. And that’s a damn good thing, because otherwise we would have missed his exceptional Vanilla Mascarpone Cheesecake ($8), gilded by balsamic-macerated strawberries. We also fell for his Lemon Meringue Tart ($8), topped with Italian-style meringue, much like marshmallow. Coffee was good and strong; even the decaf had flavor.

Pensiero seems like a work in progress, awaiting the arrival of a chef to put his own stamp on the menu and really steer the ship. In the meanwhile, the crew is holding course admirably.


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