NEAR RESTAURANT ★★★
108 Barrington Commons, Barrington
(847) 382-1919; www.near-restaurant.com
Prices: Shared plates, $6-$13; pastas, $13; entrees, $22-$25; desserts., $6.
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m., Tuesday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m., Friday-Saturday.
Try: Marinated eggplant, garlic shrimp, pappardelle with mushroom ragout, lemon curd dessert. The kitchen also does a fine job with fish.
Tips: Free parking. Reservations accepted. Full bar; $15 corkage fee.
In a bite: NEAR Restaurant is no longer a hidden gem. Food-lovers are drawn to its small-but-enticing menu executed by an amiable, well-rounded chef who’s unafraid to give free reign to his creative instincts.
KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent;
★★ Very Good; ★ Good; Zero stars: Poor
NEAR Restaurant, tucked in Barrington Commons, is a little hard to find, but find it you must to experience chef-owner Gaetano Nardulli’s creative take on Italian cooking. The 42-seat restaurant, open since August 2011, offers food lovers a memorable dining experience.
Nardulli trained in the Culinary Arts program at Kendall College in Chicago and then garnered practical experience in Tuscany and Rome. Before opening NEAR, he sharpened his skills at the well-regarded Spiaggia Restaurant and the trailblazing gourmet haven Schwa in Wicker Park.
NEAR’s understated decor — bare, well-spaced tables, and walls hung with framed black-and-white photos Nardulli took during his time in Italy — takes a back seat to a concise, constantly evolving menu.
Shared plates, whose brief descriptions only begin to tell the story, dominate the menu, along with a handful of pasta dishes and an even shorter list of full-size entrees. Trust the knowledgeable wait staff for recommendations, but, really, you probably won’t go wrong no matter what you choose.
For a unique starter, try the marinated eggplant. Paper-thin slices of raw eggplant in a zesty marinade are served in a half-pint, wide-mouth Mason jar. This went deliciously well with the accompanying grilled country bread and mixed greens salad.
Another starter I enjoyed was the shrimp plate: five warm shrimp residing in a perfectly balanced garlic-parsley-tomato sauce topped with cubes of focaccia.
Among other available small plates were burrata cheese (made from mozzarella and cream) with roasted and pickled peppers, apples and sunchokes; chicken liver crostini with black truffle; and grilled octopus with romaine, Caesar dressing and anchovies.
Pastas get star treatment as well, including a very tasty homemade pappardelle, served al dente with a flavorful ragout of mixed mushrooms and rosemary. Other selections included fettuccini bolognese and shrimp risotto, as well as gnocchi with braised pork, tomato and fontina, and ravioli with swiss chard, beets and grana padano (an aged Italian cheese).
We pressed on and shared an appealing entree featuring grilled amberjack, a close relative to pompano, presented on a bed of black beluga lentils and topped with fried kale in a balsamic dressing.
Pork loin, chicken breast and ribeye rounded out the other entree options.
When it comes to dessert, NEAR also knows how to please. Lemon curd fans will revel in the chef’s interpretation, in which the lemon curd topped with amaretti cookie crumbs is plated with bite-size chunks of brown butter cake.
Other temptations included ricotta fritters, chocolate cremeux and mascarpone with apples and granola.
Chef Gaetano makes periodic appearances in the dining room to solicit feedback on the food and service.
NEAR’s tidy wine list includes a mix of California and Italian vintages, by the bottle or glass. And the bar also dispenses beer and cocktails.
Thomas Witom is a local free-lance writer.