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Moderno a four-star addition to Highland Park dining scene

The pappardelle (wide flnoodle) with wild boar bolognese currants granpadano cheese is among exquisite fare offered Moderno HighlPark. | Tom

The pappardelle (wide flat noodle) with wild boar bolognese, currants and grana padano cheese is among the exquisite fare offered at Moderno in Highland Park. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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1850 2nd St., Highland Park

(847) 433-8600;

Prices: Salads, small plates and appetizer pizza: $9-$15. Entrees come in large and small versions, from $29-$38 and $14-$22; desserts, $7-$9, also cheese plates: $10-$25 (depending on selection of 3, 5 or 7 varieties).

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, dinner starts at 5 p.m. weekdays and at noon Saturday and Sunday. The kitchen stays open until 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Try: Sicilian white pizza, smoked trout salad, braised veal and blackberry tart.

Tips: Reservations recommended. Street parking. Full bar service. Two private dining rooms.

In a bite: In Highland Park, a town that can boast of a growing number of commendable dining options, newcomer Moderno offers a take on contemporary Italian fare that’s refined and appealing at every turn.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good; ★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:35AM

Moderno, the hot contemporary Italian restaurant in Highland Park opened this past April by chef-owner John des Rosiers, already is firing on all cylinders. An inventive menu, sleek decor and impeccable service are making a big splash.

Des Rosiers established his credentials as a trendsetting restaurateur with the opening of Inovasi in Lake Bluff in 2009, and the same attention to detail is evident at his newest North Shore venue where he’s joined by culinary veteran Phil Rubino (L2O, Bin 36 and Hotel Sofitel) as executive chef.

At Moderno, the kitchen does a fresh take on Italian fare. Its dishes, typically composed of no more than five ingredients, draw from the entire Mediterranean region and beyond. Pastas are handmade, pizza prepared from scratch, produce locally sourced and meats sustainably raised.

Diners will find some tasty nibbles — warm, herb-scented pizza puffs — at hand as they review the extensive wine, beer and artisanal cocktail list and a menu sectioned into pasta, pizza and salad choices as well as tasting-size appetizer dishes.

There was nothing boring about the shareable Sicilian white anchovy pizza. This thin-crusted version came topped with fresh mozzarella, scallion salsa, tiny lardons of gin-cured bacon and uncured white anchovies that tasted like a mild herring. Other pizzas featured spiced lamb with yogurt, goat cheese and arugula; pancetta with aged Gouda, fresh oregano and a farm egg; and summer squash with sweet onion, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

Another dish that disappeared in short order at our table was the delectable house-smoked trout salad served with mustard greens, green apple and celery root in a creme fraiche dressing. Thoughts of other tempting fare, including pappardelle with wild boar bolognese, wild walleye pike with a tomato-and-green-olive ragu and beef carpaccio with porcini, were shelved for a future visit.

While one could easily make a meal from the appetizer offerings, I recommend mixing and matching from items under the “Bigs (and their smaller cousins)” heading. These are main courses ($29-$38) that, conveniently, can be ordered in scaled-down portions ($14-$22). Two likable downsized dishes are the slow-braised veal that came with pickled red peppers and a coarse-grain mustard vinaigrette sauce for dipping, and pork confit roasted for12 hours in grenache wine vinegar and spices. And you can’t go wrong with an la carte side order of grilled vegetables ($7).

Moderno excels at desserts, from its updated approach to tiramisu prepared with mascarpone, savoiardi biscuits (lady fingers) and espresso soup to tartufo, a frozen confection made with milk chocolate mousse and cake crumbs. We shared an appealing crostata, an Italian baked tart filled with seasonal blackberries, goat cheese and lemon and accompanied by a scoop of honey gelato. That and a cafe cortado — an espresso with a small amount of warm milk to cut the acidity — translates as a perfect finale to dinner.

Also available is a selection of seven cheeses and a number of dessert wines.

Moderno occupies light and airy quarters with plenty of windowed doors that open onto outdoor seating along two sides of the building’s perimeter. Dividing the dining room into smaller spaces helps promote a greater sense of intimacy in the remodeled space that once housed a Rosebud restaurant.

Tom Witom is a local free-lance writer.

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