Is Asian-Northern Italian food the newest take on fusion cuisine, or just a canny attempt to cash in on both of Chicago’s most popular cuisines? Whatever the reason, the chef at Misto (the word means mixture) comes up with dishes that may sound like the most unlikely couplings since Liz and Larry, but for the most part they work–especially with pasta which, although it doesn’t possess tofu’s uncanny ability to lie there and fake it, is capable of relationships British royals can only dream of.

Some of Misto’s offerings feature traditional Italian flavors, while others wed Vietnamese, Thai, or Japanese with Italian ingredients. As those of you who saw M. Butterfly know, when East meets West the results can be unexpected. Do we really want sushi al forno or peanut pesto? Relax. So far chef Sami Signorino knows how to use her noodle. A scintillating tricolor raviolone appetizer stuffed with scallops and spiked with candied ginger and roasted garlic ($5.50) shows how successful mixed marriages can be, as does an excellent entree of bucatini noodles with spaghetti squash and shiitake mushrooms in an assertive cilantro pesto sauce ($9.50). The more traditional Italian grilled portobello mushroom with polenta ($7) would benefit from similarly zesty saucing. Other appetizer choices include mussels in white wine, basil, and roasted garlic ($5.50), fresh homemade mozzarella with roasted peppers ($5), and a salad of grilled scallops, mixed greens, and tiny green beans with sesame dressing ($6). We asked for a refill of the focaccia and Italian herb breads, custom baked by Gonnella and outstanding on their own or accompanied by the complimentary dip of black bean and creme fraiche. The dip was enlivened with Thai pepper fingers, cilantro, roasted yellow bell peppers, diced tomato, and lime juice.

Misto has only been open since November and, although the food is promising, the kitchen is still a bit shaky. An entree of chicken breast dusted with semolina, sauteed, and served with lemon, artichoke hearts, tomato, and exotic Peruvian midnight blue riced potatoes ($11) needed a touch more lemon to give it zing. (The potatoes, now a discontinued menu item, weren’t too great a leap of faith for a blue-corn chip addict, but chicken still pink on the inside was.) Rigatoni with sweet sausage and roasted peppers, supposedly in a spicy tomato sauce ($9.50), was a delicious reminder of old-fashioned Italian cooking, but wasn’t spicy at all. Another time bucatini (now replaced by penne), also in a spicy tomato sauce ($8), set off fire alarms in our taste buds. Hopefully, these switched spicing signals will be remedied shortly.

Other entree choices are seafood linguine with white wine and basil sauce ($11), lemon pappardelle served with grilled shrimp, spinach, and cherry tomatoes in a spicy light cream sauce ($12), and vegetable lasagna layered with ricotta and a cilantro pesto sauce ($11). There are a couple fish options: spicy tuna with grilled vegetables ($14) and king salmon coated with colored peppercorns and served with vegetables ($12). For unrepentant meat eaters there’s a New York strip steak with roasted garlic and Parmesan ($15) that tempted us to be politically incorrect.

Desserts include a light, airy shortbread-based tiramisu (the mascarpone cheese is made by the chef herself); a triple chocolate terrine; and a white-chocolate-mousse-filled chocolate cup with brandied cherries. Avoid the mascarpone cheese ball with raspberry coulis and creme Anglaise. It’s too cheesy. All desserts are $5.

Signorino has been cooking professionally since the age of 16, moving from French to Southern, Cuban, Creole, and recently and very successfully, to Italian-Mediterranean at Jezebel. She uses no butter and her cream sauces are made with yogurt. She will prepare dishes to meet customers’ individual needs, and hopes to offer a special menu for restricted diets soon.

Signorino’s presentation is simple but elegant, a swirl here, an artful spatter there–far removed from the days when she won a contest with a table decoration consisting of a motorboat skimming over blue meringue water pulling two crawdads by linguine towropes. (I mentioned this in my year-end column, but in case you missed it I thought it was worth repeating.)

Gene Witt, former director of operations at Bice, and attorney Brad Falk have created an elegant venue that echoes Ms. Signorino’s take on fusion cuisine. In the days before my appendix scar could be mistaken for an ankle bracelet, I was able to tell what kind of food a place served by its decor. Italian restaurants had Chianti bottles on the tables, Chinese had soy sauce. At Misto the signs are more subtle, but they indicate a marriage of styles that echoes the cuisine. The dining room, which seats 90, features a high-tech stainless steel back wall left behind by its former tenant, the Rust Belt Cafe. The steel has been rehung in a different configuration, mixed with the natural elements of polished wood floors and exposed brick, and retro 1950s Herman Miller chairs. The russet, gold, and deep green Austrian fabric on the booths and the gorgeous mosaic “stone carpet” in the separate bar area both have patterns of the same vintage. The bar itself is polished mahogany with a copper top. This is all courtesy of Mark Knauer, who also designed Bossa Nova, Tuttaposto, Harry Caray’s, and Gibson’s. He’s outdone himself. The place is smashing. When told that the theme of the dining room’s huge abstract mural painted by Filip Sotirovic was a dreamlike vision of the progress of friendship from the past into the future, the ever-cynical Poppy said, “Dream on.”

Misto’s owners are more than accommodating, but they may wish they’d been a bit surlier with one customer. A woman I know who shall remain nameless said she didn’t want spicy food, then ignored the waitress’s advice and ordered the bucatini with spicy tomato sauce. When she didn’t like it, it was replaced gratis, and after she found the replacement too bland the management didn’t charge her for her entree at all. She was so impressed she intends to return often–just their luck.

Misto Ristorante, 2747 N. Lincoln, is open for dinner from 5 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 Sunday (closed Monday). They take reservations, and valet parking is available. For more information call 281-1400.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.