Evanston has a new haven of Italian haute cuisine, named after one of Verdi's most moving arias, "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate" ("Go, my thought, on golden wings") from Nabucco. The opera recounts how the Hebrews, prisoners in Babylon, helped restore Nebuchadnezzar to the throne and then returned to their homeland. A chorus of captives on the banks of the Euphrates sings "Va, pensiero . . ." a haunting lament by those deeply homesick for their native soil.
The restaurant Va Pensiero, down a short flight of stairs from street level, is housed in an apartment building on Evanston's northwest side, in a pleasant, leafy residential area. Despite the biblical aura thrown over it by its name, the restaurant has a decor that conjures up Julius Caesar--ancient Rome rather than Babylon. White columns trisect a large, square room, forming a corridor down the center with booths and tables on either side. A mirror at one end of the corridor reflects the room back again, creating a feeling of spaciousness. A tile walkway, Roman benches with lion's feet, concrete planters resembling small Roman sarcophagi set into bay windows--all suggest a modern interpretation of a classical interior. Peach walls both offset and emphasize the stark whiteness of the columns, the molded ceiling, and the napery. The room radiates an understated urbanity and civilized ease, something to be treasured in this era of power meals and dining a la disco.
The menu, devised by former chef Alan Wade, is limited but shows his talent and range, from hearty to delicate. Peggy Ryan, the one-time sous-chef and later co-chef at Cafe Provencal who has replaced Wade, intends to continue the same menu, using the same recipes.
In keeping with current culinary trends, the sauces tend to be broths and bases of lightly seasoned olive oil rather than floury or tomato-thick decoctions. Pastas (so far only some of them are homemade) can be ordered strewn with wild mushrooms, asparagus, and sage in a porcini broth ($5.50) or embellished with shrimps, clams, and calamari in a light sauce of tomato, white wine, garlic, and olive oil ($6.25) or filled with goat cheese, resting in a pool of delicately flavored sauce ($5.25). A smattering of daily specials is generally available in addition to the regular menu.
Two soups of the day ($2.95) were offered on our last visit: cream of spinach with fennel and minestrone with pesto sauce. The minestrone, a large bowl of garlicky beef stock brimming over with white beans, corn kernels, and tiny, still-firm cubes of carrot, celery, and potato, was marred only slightly by tough, diminutive meat strands. They were, however, easy to set aside.
The regular menu contains a quartet of nicely varied appetizers. The carciofi farciti con formaggio, one artichoke heart stuffed with homemade mozzarella decorated with four leaves forming a cross, seemed a bit skimpy for its $4.95 price tag. But the dish itself, enlivened by lemony black-pepper vinaigrette, made a nice beginning to a meal. Excellent pan-fried calamari ($5.25), a special one evening, consisted of thin, chewy-rich meat topped with julienned sun-dried tomatoes and accompanied by a mildly pungent puree of yellow peppers. Other commendable starters include baked polenta with gorgonzola and apples ($3.95)--an intriguing combination that works surprisingly well-fresh herb-cured salmon enhanced by capers and mascarpone cheese ($4.95), and pan-roasted quail served warm with squash and mixed greens ($5.95).
A sprightly house salad--spinach leaves, romaine, and radicchio dotted with pine nuts--comes with all entrees. Should roast veal with olives and chicory make a special appearance on the menu, go for it. Failing that, carnivores will surely find happiness with bollito misto ($15.95), slices of beef tenderloin, filet of lamb, and duck sausage in a robust, intensely meaty unthickened broth. Both duck sausage and lamb were top-notch, the beef a mere hairbreadth behind. Crunchy, torpedo-shaped carrots and turnip kept the meat company. Though a touch more refined than you're likely to get in a trattoria in Bologna, this version of bollito misto should satisfy all but the most obdurate purists.
There's usually a fresh fish of the day. On our last visit it was grouper, utterly pristine, bedded on roasted garlic cream, sprinkled with matchsticks of carrot and celery and surrounded by oyster mushrooms ($15.95). The fungi had a custardy resilience that nicely complemented the satiny sauce, to which the carrots and celery added color and a crisp textural counterpoint. We've also sampled perfectly grilled salmon that shared a plate with tangy, marinated onions and white beans suffused with rosemary.
Desserts, which change daily, run from $2.50 to $4.00. Concocted by dessert chef Eddie Cooper, they live up to the high standards set by the rest of the meal. On one memorable occasion a mound of dense, bittersweet-chocolate zabaglione satisfied our chocoholic cravings. Most recently our sweet tooth has been gladdened by a wonderful pear tart in a hazelnut crust reposing in a puddle of anise-flavored cream. An ethereal espresso-hazelnut cheesecake, smooth as silk and with just the right balance of coffee and nut flavors, was a worthy also-ran. Rich, dark, creamy cappuccino ($2.25) is served with Lilliputian saucers of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and shaved chocolate for do-it-yourself topping. It is also available decaffeinated, as is the full-bodied espresso ($1.75).
The 25-item wine list presents an interesting selection of medium-priced Italian vintages, beginning at $9 for a Bonfio II Poggiolo Chianti Riserva '83 and going up to $32.50 for Castello di Neive Barbaresco Santo Stefano '82. We can recommend Avignonesi, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano '85 ($19.50), a moderately full-bodied, well-balanced, fruity libation that goes well with just about everything but especially meat and poultry. Several house wines are also available by the glass. Service is eager and enthusiastic.
Va Pensiero, 1566 Oak Ave., Evanston, is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 AM to 2 PM, for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 9:30, and Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30. Closed Sunday. Visa and Mastercard are accepted. For reservations, call 475-7779.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.