This neighborhoody pan-Mediterranean bistro could easily be a subject of one of those “Why Berwyn?” billboards that have popped up all over Chicago to convince potential home buyers of the charms of New Svengoolieland. At the very least, mention of it will probably find a place in the sales patter of bungalow realtors all over the near-western burbs.
As for the rest of us, is it worth risking a slog west on a gunged-up Eisenhower to eat there? Well, if one thing recommends it it’s the resumés of the four principals, all of whom worked under Tony Mantuano in various restaurants. Decorated with old movie posters from former Spiaggia wine steward John Aranza’s nerdtastic horrorbilia store to the west, it’s a bright, inviting storefront with a long communal table running down the front and a spacious bar in the back.
The menu from Beth Partridge and Dan Pancake (ex-Cafe Spiaggia and Spiaggia, respectively) certainly is Mantuano-esque, most tellingly in a trio of ruddy handmade pastas to which sauces adhere with ionic clinginess, such as a generous tangle of tagliatelle with rock shrimp and bay scallops and a creamy sweet-pea puree that perfumes the entire dining room when it leaves the kitchen, or a voluptuous Taylor Street-style red sauce that blankets four fat pork-and-spinach-stuffed throw pillows.
This is simple food, simply prepared, and for once when a server promises that plates are shareable, it’s true across the board, from a crock of fatty pork rillettes and pickled Rainier cherries to a pair of long crostini topped with white bean puree and thick, fresh cured sardine fillets—a plate that could easily give four a good taste. Jumbo-size deep-fried oysters wilt a tall mounded bed of fresh watercress grown in the restaurant’s backyard greenhouse; the charred tips of the grilled octopus contrast with its tender, meaty ends, but it’s the capers and red wine vinaigrette that stretch this dish out. For this reason alone it’s a shame there’s no bread service (though servers will meet requests for it).
I don’t mean to suggest that the kitchen is guilty of supersizing—but it’d be silly to tackle something like the dino-size and just slightly rare wood-grilled pork steak with beans and escarole solo. Yet until you get a grip on the size of most things the menu seems more than manageable, especially in its pricing—almost nothing above $16. Even so, at the end of a meal the animal richness of chocolate hazelnut pots de creme, a veritable cup of chocolate fat, or a pistachio-studded chickpea crostata seem sadly insurmountable.
Three flatbreads in particular take up quite a bit of surface area, but their crusts are light and wafer thin, though a pancetta, rapini, and Taleggio number was overwhelming not so much in size but in saltiness. If there were any problems with the minimally prepared dishes it was in this occasional imbalance in seasoning on otherwise high-quality product, some of it coming from Partridge and Pancake’s Ohio farm. Fat, long, soft eggplant fries may seem totally unseasoned until dipped in the bracing, forest green arugula-caper sauce. The broth in a big zuppe de pesce comes off a bit one-note, bathing just-overcooked shrimp and scallops and halibut in short supply. A so-called “porchetta” sandwich—actually a surprisingly great slow-smoked pulled pork shoulder topped with fennel slaw—came sandwiched on a cold pitalike bread that could have come from the Turano factory down the street and was accompanied by an insurmountable portion of overfried, undersalted chips. And Berwyn is still a long way to go for a cocktail; a Sazerac—more of an absinthe slush than serious drink—and a treacly blood orange gimlet inspired closer looks at an interesting biodynamic/organic wine list that features offerings from Greece and the Balkans alongside affordable Italian and French wines, almost all of them available by the glass.
But these seem like faults of a new operation that was in the weeds, serving besotted diners crowded into the new dining room. I’m betting they’ll tighten up soon, though on nights when big acts have been booked at FitzGerald’s I’m staying far away. That’s only part of the reason I expect Autre Monde will be an asset to its town, and, yeah, worth a trip for Chicagoans too. So here’s a tip: avoid the Ike. Just take Roosevelt.