Restaurateur John Merlo made his name as the owner of swank Chicago spots such as Avenue M and Bacchus. But for his latest creation, he wanted something that struck a little closer to home — in more ways than one. With his new Highland Park restaurant Merlo’s, not only is he returning to his suburban roots (and working closer to his wife and two kids) but he’s tapping into his heritage with a menu that highlights Southern Italian fare. (“Merlo” means “blackbird” in Italian.)
“I wanted something small, manageable and kind of quaint. I wanted a neighborhood restaurant,” he says. The result is a charming eatery filled with the sights, sounds and flavors of the “old country.” From the black-and-white prints of Italian scenery, white tablecloths and dark wood bar to the Italian music wafting through the dining room, the space is the ideal accompaniment to the traditional menu prepared by chef Joe Farina (Ballo, Rosebud Group).
Look for classic dishes such as chicken Parmesan ($17), served in a light tomato sauce with bubbling mozzarella and Parmesan, or the Merlo’s salad ($10), loaded with garbanzo beans, hearts of palm, cucumber, tomato and mildly spicy pepperoncini and tossed in red wine vinaigrette. Other dishes have a personal history: The crunchy artichoke fritters ($8), served with a creamy lemon caper aioli, are a childhood favorite of Merlo’s. But the shining force is Nonna’s gravy ($16). A recipe straight from Farina’s grandmother’s kitchen, it features rigatoni topped with melt-in-your mouth red wine pot roast and crushed tomatoes, taking comfort food to a whole new level of molto bene.
Merlo’s is open for dinner seven days a week. 581 Roger Williams, (847) 266-0600; Merlosrestaurant.com.