The Scott Harris restaurant empire started in 1992 with the opening of the first Mia Francesca on North Clark Street in Chicago, a trattoria-style Italian joint that was vastly different from the red-sauce restaurants of Taylor Street. The food was both rustic and seasonally driven, with a handwritten special menu that changed frequently, depending on what was available at market. The prices were reasonable, and the people came in droves.
And how it has grown! There are now 19 Francesca restaurants throughout Chicagoland, with three more in Madison, Wisconsin; San Diego, California; and Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition, there are five Davanti Enotecas (three in the Chicago area and two in the San Diego area); five Glazed & Infused (to my mind, the best donuts in town); a Fat Rosie’s Taco & Tequila Bar downstate; and their newest iteration of rustic Italian, Disotto in Highwood.
Taking over the space vacated by the closing of PM Prime steakhouse last year, Disotto joins a number of Italian restaurants already ensconced in Highwood, including last year’s newcomer, Ballaro.
They’ve totally reworked the space and the fine-dining vibe: Multi-colored bricks, with artfully excessive mortar, line the walls and ceiling; tables are covered with butcher-block paper rather than linen; wood chairs (painted a distressed white) and banquettes are upholstered with black pleather; Edison-bulb fixtures illuminate the room. A large covered front patio area beckons in fine weather, and private dining rooms below accommodate overflow on busy nights.
Start off your evening with a refreshing quaff — perhaps the Roman Highball ($12), an aperitif made with amaro, fresh lemon juice and ginger syrup, or the Porch Pounder ($12), a winning combo of vodka, prosecco, mango syrup and almond orgeat, so named because one could easily down a few. We were thrilled to discover that Wednesdays are “Wine-Down Wednesdays” at Disotto, which meant half-price bottles. We split a bottle of the Whispering Angel Rosé, normally $13 a glass, for a mind-boggling $26.
Chef Dan Harris’ (Scott’s nephew and the next generation of the Harris family) rustic menu is inspired by Italy’s coastal fishing villages and rural towns, loaded with seafood, fresh produce, herbs and seasonings. Take, for example, the Octopus ($14), a riot of color and texture. Crisp sliced celery, nutty chickpeas and juicy “sun-kissed” tomato wedges provide counterpoint to the tender grilled octopus, enhanced by a light lemony vinaigrette. The Steamed Mussels ($14), steamed with beer, tomato and Calabrian chilies, garnished with julienne basil, looked better than they tasted. The beer and the chilies overwhelmed the dish, and some of the mussels were on the dry side. A heavy hand with salt (a repeated issue here) was evident.
The Brussels Sprouts antipasti ($12) could easily have sprung from some nonna’s farm table — the roasted sprouts tossed with crispy chunks of prosciutto, grated pecorino cheese and flakes of spicy Calabrian chile, all topped with a crispy-edged fried egg. Hearty, flavorful and quite scrumptious, especially when the egg is broken and mixed with the other ingredients.
Tables around us oohed and aahed over the Focaccia di Recco ($12), a Ligurian-style baked focaccia with melty cow’s milk cheese, sprinkled with sea salt and served with fresh honeycomb. I’ve had it many times at sister restaurant Davanti Enoteca, so did not feel compelled to order it here; if you are a carbaholic, it’s not to be missed.
Before you pooh-pooh yet another Kale Caesar Salad ($9), know that this iteration is worthy of your attention. Fresh kale and romaine leaves, crunchy croutons and grated pecorino are tossed in a garlicky, not overly creamy Caesar dressing; real Italian white anchovies are draped over the top.
Among the pasta offerings, we opted for the luscious Gnocchi with Braised Lamb Sugo ($17) tossed with sheep’s milk ricotta, mint and fresh peas, garnished with bright green pea shoots for crunch and color. The gnocchi were fluffy and light, the lamb sugo rich and flavorful. A winner.
A properly al dente Linguine with Gulf Shrimp ($19) featured plump shrimp, blistered cherry tomatoes, garlic and parsley in a brothy white-wine-tomato sauce. It was a perfectly serviceable rendition of a classic dish.
Wild Halibut ($27), pan-seared and beautifully seasoned, sat atop a pile of charred yellow and green string beans and was finished with a red pepper romesco sauce and a tangle of julienne basil. We returned the egregiously oversalted Veal Saltimbocca ($26) — note to kitchen: If you wrap something in prosciutto and cook it, there will be salt enough — but were thrilled with the 10-ounce NY Strip Steak ($32) sent out in its stead. This dish really reminded me of authentic Tuscan steak, as it was served juicy and medium rare, sliced and served with a mound of lemon-dressed arugula, tomato, red onion and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano. Management was very apologetic about the veal dish, and worked quickly to replace it. And since the steak dish turned out to be a stunner, we were happy as clams.
For dessert, I recommend the Cobbler ($8), a warm mixed-berry delight topped with a scoop of creamy gelato. The Bombolini ($8), five Italian-style donuts, were undercooked on the first pass, but again the staff swooped in and made it right. They are sugar-crusted and served with chocolate and berry sauces for dipping and make for a sweet ending. I look forward to returning on a warm summer night and enjoying the patio.
Disotto is open seven days a week for dinner; lunch is served on Fridays only, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. All menu items are available to go, but there’s a special Ravinia picnic menu on offer with market salads, sandwiches and a meat and cheese plate; purchase a bottle of wine with your picnic meal and it’s 50 percent off the wine list price.
310 Green Bay Road
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