Ballaro Potato Gnocchi

Potato Gnocchi (Photos by Grant Kessler.)

The last tenant of 214 Green Bay Road was Gabe’s Backstage Lounge, owned by Gabe Viti (who also owned the plush Gabriel’s down the block). But now a new team has taken over the space, and it’s a transformation.

When I walked into Ballaro, I was impressed by how new owners Josh Kaplan (the son of legendary local restaurant critic Sherman Kaplan) and lifelong friend Mark Newman, both Highland Park natives, have reinvented the space which features a more approachable brand of Italian food. They call it “contemporary Italian rooted in tradition,” and there’s plenty here to crave.

Ballaro

A Space Transformed

The space has been taken down to its original brick walls, the drop ceilings removed to reveal an airy space with both single bulb and high track lighting that feels a lot more like Brooklyn or the West Loop than Highwood. A gorgeous old-world wood bar dominates the two-story front room, with inviting backlit rows of liquor bottles; floor-to-ceiling windows look east onto Green Bay and fill the room with sunlight or the hazy glow of streetlights depending on the time of day. A large back room provides space for larger groups and private dining.

Kaplan is an acclaimed cocktail wizard and sommelier; that’s evident at a glance from the beverage offerings. Order a well-balanced cocktail like the North Shore Gin & Tonic ($9) or the Hunky Dory ($11), made with Four Roses bourbon, apple-spice syrup, fresh lemon juice and creamy egg white — basically, autumn in a glass — while perusing the menu. And a shout-out to the wine list — it’s dominated by Italian wines, the vast majority of which are under $50, and at least half are under $40, a welcome trend.

Ballaro cocktails

Take a Tour of Italy

Chef Newman once cooked his way across Italy; his affinity for the cuisine is evident, his inspiration found in Sicily, Sardinia, Tuscany and Calabria. His Minestrone al Forno ($9) contained plenty of cannellini beans and vegetables in a tomato-based broth, topped with a fresh mozzarella crostini and shavings of earthy Parmesan cheese, a lovely wintry warmer.

Fried Octopus ($10) takes a different tack than the usual presentation, the octopus (both body and tentacles) dredged in rice flour and cooked to tender perfection and paired with chunks of fried fingerling potatoes and tomato fuso (a thick tomato sauce, literally, “tomatoes melted down”), salty fried capers and a drizzle of parsley oil.

The ubiquitous winter beets get a different dance partner at Ballaro in the form of pink grapefruit sections, crisp celery and cucumber, peppery arugula and über-creamy Robiola cheese, all tossed with a slightly sweet, vaguely Asian dressing containing toasted sesame seeds. It’s billed as a Seasonal Greens Salad ($10); I assume it will have a different cast in the spring.

Our favorite appetizer was the Crispy Eggplant ($11), which just screams with Southern Italian flavors. It’s got the interplay of sweet (chunks of fresh honeycomb) and heat (fresh tomato sauce laced with Calabrian chile), and the textural contrast of crunchy-crusted eggplant with dollops of creamy herbed ricotta cheese.

Carb Loading

Pasta and risotto thoughtfully come in both starter and entrée sizes, especially welcome to those of us who are counting carbs. The al dente Risotto ($15/$22) teemed with plump, wild Gulf shrimp and little nubbins of preserved lemon; it was a bit under-seasoned, but a sprinkle of salt helped. Wide Pappardelle ($12/$18) noodles provided a sturdy base to a rich short rib Bolognese sauce and a glorious amount of shaved Parmesan, though we wished for a more substantial amount of meat.

Entrées included a lovely roasted Amish Chicken ($19) dish, the skin-on airline breast perched on a pool of soft polenta, surrounded by roasted peppers and cippolini onions and tomato sauce studded with little chunks of pancetta, a reimagined cacciatore. The Scottish Salmon ($24), another winning dish, was Newman’s nod to a Venetian sweet-and-sour fish preparation, with the beautifully pan-sautéed, skin-on salmon complementing the sweet, earthy notes of root vegetable ragù, celery root purée and melted leeks, balanced by the sharper mustard agrodolce and pickled mustard seeds. The sauce leaned a bit sweet, but still paired well with the 2008 ‘La Praielle’ Barbera-Uva Rara ($42). Sides of fresh ricotta-creamed spinach and spicy, garlicky Brussels sprouts ($5 each) quickly disappeared.

If you’ve saved room for dessert, I’d recommend the Chocolate Banana Crunch ($9), a triptych of rich chocolate desserts, including a ganache-covered mini-cake, chocolate gelato and a roasted banana pudding topped with bits of shaved chocolate and chopped meringue. We liked the presentation of the Ricotta Cheesecake ($9) (with caramel and Amarena cherries) more than its flavor.

Our table service was spotty, but the greeting was warm, and all the tables around us seemed quite content with the food, as were we. Now that I’ve discovered Ballaro, I’m bound to return.

Ballaro Rainbow Trout

Rainbow Trout

Ballaro
214 Green Bay Road
Highwood
847-780-3396


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