Alessio Vullo, the executive chef at Nando Milano, was needless of introduction. Having never seen the man, I caught him walking by the kitchen door in his dark chef coat abound by an air of comfort and work. “That’s the chef,” I thought.
In the past year, Nando Milano has become the first place I’d recommend to visiting gourmands who look for good food and a good time, in an unpretentious manner where you don’t have to dress like coming off the stage from a concerto, or suggest to your date that the wine has notes of boiled leather and butterflies. In a dimly-lit world rolling jazz and blues, belly-laughs are permissible between curated cheeses and hot appetizers of great savor, fresh and good for the soul; the delicious venture continues with hearty pasta made in-house (I’m feeling the tender oxtail melting away in my mouth as we speak), plenty of sharing, glass-clinking, and the subtle attention from the waiting staff who never serenaded us with “How’s everybody doing?” when our mouths were occupied by food.
Behind the kitchen doors, the crew was busy preparing the salmon that Chef Alessio assured me was indeed fresh, with a sensible passion. Reading my skepticism for fresh seafood in Central Illinois, he explained that by working with the right suppliers you can get the right ingredients to your door; in this case, his supplier works with Michelin-starred restaurants as well.
Michelin or not, the Chef of an award-winning restaurant didn’t seem anywhere elevated himself (Nando Milano Chicago in Wicker Park was voted Chicago’s Best North Side, 2018). Having never received training from culinary schools, at 17 Chef Alessio began his career in the kitchen with the proverbial teachings of his grandmother. For 13 years he lived and worked in Bologna, a place perhaps best known for being the home of the now-ubiquitous ragù alla bolognese, or in another world is called “meat sauce” (which in a way is to say that, if you’re truly panicking at the menu, go along with the bolognese sauce).
With movements of the family, the Vullos manifested their food businesses from the limoncello-sipping Sicily through Northern and Central Italy, running restaurants in Milan, Verona, and Bologna. It was only about 10 years ago when Chef Alessio parachuted himself into the Chicago food scene, to join his brother Dario’s venture in the Italian trattoria.
Along with Alessio arrived the loving little Dachshund Nando, who is now splendidly 13 years old. Looking around, I began seeing Nando everywhere — the logo, the staff T-shirts, a picture reflecting off of a mirror, the ceramic figures. The staff will probably point out more. Having always wondered why Nando Milano opted an outline of a dog for their logo, now I’d be paying respect to the projections of Nando himself.
I guess we all have Carle to thank for this good endeavor of Italian fares in Champaign. When Dario’s wife — co-owner of Nando Milano in Chicago — started her medical school residency at Carle, instead of constantly traveling between two cities, the brothers enjoyed the supportive community in C-U and sought to open a restaurant here. With the first restaurant in good hands, they filled this corner-street storefront with their uncompromising authenticity and hard work (as well as good looks), finally opening its doors in 2015.
From some feedback I’ve heard of an earlier time, it seemed like they were off at a rocky start, but having dined there a few times now I know that’s no longer the case. Sure the place feels a lot more upscale than a typical homely trattoria, and the price doesn’t look quite modest, but for me every penny is worth it: for quality ingredients, yes, but their otherworldly clean restroom would be another fine justification. A year or so ago they opened Crudo as well, a proper wine bar around the block that I will be visiting very soon.
Although Restaurant Week officially starts on January 25th, Nando will be serving up their special menu from Monday, January 21st. The Prix-Fixe menu unfolds into three courses including an appetizer, an entrée (pasta or meat/fish), and a dessert; have a look at the selections here and prepare to be pampered. Outside of Restaurant Week, I know I will be trying their chicken parm with great curiosity: a famous resident of the menu with loyal Chicagoan fans, the dish won Nando that title of Chicago’s Best, which is hilariously ironic for being arguably the quintessential Italian-American creation in the hands of an Italian chef. For warmer months to come, look out for brunch hours on the weekend as well as lunch offerings, let’s hope the tagliatelle alla bolognese and that pollo alla parmigiana will show up somewhere.
204 N Neil St
M-Th 5 to 10 p.m.
F + Sa 5 to 11 p.m.
Su 4 to 10 p.m.
Photos by Cara Feng