July 2, 2009
"Just south of Spunky Dunkers" doesn't sound like the ideal way to describe your restaurant's location, but in the Palatine area, that tells the locals exactly where to find you. "It's a landmark," enthused a colleague who lives in the area. "Out here it's Woodfield, Ikea and Spunky Dunkers."
So Agio, an Italian bistro that opened in February, will be forever linked to a doughnut shop. There are worse things.
Owner Joe Barrutia parlayed his success running Slice of Chicago pizzeria into a mini-empire. He knocked down the original pizzeria and created a strip mall -- retail development, in the preferred vernacular -- with his pizzeria and his new restaurant as principal tenants.
Agio looks like anything but a strip-mall eatery, however. Barrutia hit the auction trail to find his back bar, a handsome wood antique that gives the bar area a sense of permanence. The dining room's focal point is a 1,000-bottle glassed-in wine room that Barrutia built with his son; the dining room's grand mirror and mahogany crown molding were salvaged from the old Ambassador West hotel before it went condo.
"I had to get on a real tall ladder with a crowbar," says Barrutia of the ceiling molding, "but I got it."
The dining room holds 60 people, which makes the 32-seat patio a financial blessing. It's a pretty area, bordered by arbor vitae hung with twinkling lights, though the Guinness-logo umbrellas don't quite evoke a Palermo piazza. Then again, if you've got an Italian in the kitchen and an Irishman running your bar, you're probably going about things the right way.
The Italian in the kitchen is Marc Montagna, who put in some time at Le Titi de Paris before opening Bistro Kirkou and Bistro 22 (same restaurant, different names) in Lake Zurich. Montagna's French training occasionally intrudes into his Italian heritage, but only the most hardened purist is likely to complain.
For one thing, his eggplant parmigiana, so often a perfunctory inclusion on Italian menus, is simply outstanding, maybe the best I've ever had. The secret, Montagna says, is to do the dish in small batches, rather than baking huge pans of the stuff. The dish is offered as an appetizer, but many regulars order a double portion for their entree. That Barrutia charges just $14 for this accommodation is a welcome bonus.
The $10 price tag on the asparagus-crab salad initially arched my eyebrows, until I saw the size of the asparagus portion and the bounty of lump crabmeat on the plate. I've had crabcake duos that didn't contain this much meat. The asparagus, still hot from the grill and stoked with charcoal flavor, work nicely against the chilled crab meat; a splash of lemon, some cherry tomatoes and a bit of garlic add flavor accents.
Other first-course standards include nicely grilled calamari and a carpaccio with enough beefy flavor to stand up to the field of arugula that accompanied it.
I initially ignored the ribeye special available one visit, but when my waiter said the beef had been aged in-house for a month, how could I refuse? This steak was delicious, 10 ounces of closely trimmed, waste-free meat. The horseradish cream underneath it was so mild, one could have missed the horseradish flavor entirely, and the planked potatoes were pretty much a yawn; this is a terrific steak in need of better playmates.
Similarly, I didn't quite get the pairing of veal saltimbocca with a baked egg-and-broccoli mix. But the egg dish, crusted with parmesan, tasted good, and the veal saltimbocca was a well-rendered classic.
Far more coherent were the gnocchi with Italian sausage and a tomato-cream sauce sparked by pancetta and shiitake mushrooms; and twin fillets of ruby trout draped over couscous, with a sauce of tomatoes and bell pepper.
Dessert includes some usual suspects, including a respectable cannoli and a yummy tortino cake, a chocolate-orange cake topped with whole-milk (instead of heavier cream) vanilla gelato. But a little French creeps into Montagna's dessert trio, a delightful mini-assortment consisting of a tiny cannoli, miniature creme brulee and a "cappuccino" of burnt-caramel ice cream and milk foam assembled in a demitasse cup.
On our first visit, we dined with a couple of regulars and were handsomely treated as a consequence; Barrutia, who likes to bop around the dining room in a chef's jacket, is the sort of perpetual-motion host who's chatting one minute, offering free wine sips the next and running back to the kitchen to deliver food moments after that. When Barrutia happens not to be at your table, well-trained and alert servers are more than capable.
You're not going to spend a fortune at Agio -- specials aside, few entrees break the $20 barrier, and wine prices are very budget-friendly -- and you're not likely to leave this place hungry. Though if you are, there is that nearby doughnut shop.
You know, that place just north of Agio.
Agio64 S. Northwest Hwy., Palatine
Open: Dinner Mon.-Sun., lunch Mon.-Fri.
Entree prices: $12-$28
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Parking lot; wheelchair accessible
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