Smile Politely

Nando Milano’s Chef shares about his Italian roots and what’s popular on the menu

Nando Milano is a downtown Champaign staple offering classic Italian dishes. The menu  has antipasti (appetizers), insalate (salads), contorni (sides), primi piatti (pasta), secondi piatti (meat and seafood dishes), and dolci (desserts) in addition to family-style specials.

I spoke with Nando Milano’s Chef Alessio Vullo about where he’s from, where he learned to cook, and what C-U can do during this time to support local restaurants.

A portrait of Chef Alessio Vulloin front of a red brick wall. Photo by Cara Feng.

Photo by Cara Feng.

Smile Politely: Hello! Can you please introduce yourself?

Alessio Vullo: My name is Alessio Vullo. I was born in Sicily 40 years ago. When I was 18, I moved to Bologna, Emilia-Romagna in the middle of north Italy which is very popular for Italian food. It was recognized by the New York Times as the best city where you can find some of the best food in the world.

SP: What is your role at Nando and how did that begin?

Vullo: My role is the Executive Chef at Nando Milano here in Champaign, which was the second Nando Milano. Nando Chicago was the first location, but last year, we sold the Chicago location in order to put more focus on the Champaign location. 

Chef Vullo in the kitchen cooking over a hot stove. Photo from Nando Milano's website.

Photo by Nando Milano.

SP: How long have you been a chef?

Vullo: 25 years.

SP: Where did you learn to cook?

Vullo: I learned to cook in the kitchen with my grandma, with my mom, with my aunt. All my family, they are good chefs. My grandfather opened a bar in Caltanissetta, the city where I was born and raised. I spent a lot of time there watching. They make everything there: gelato, pastry, pizza, pasta, everything. The bar is still open today; it’s called Esperia.

SP: Do you have a favorite dish to make?

Vullo: My favorite dish for me? Really, I don’t have just one. Everything I make is special to me. When I make something or create a new dish, I put my heart into it. This for me is the magic: to make people happy.

A glass of white wine sits on a table next to a white plate of pasta with parmesan sprinkled on top. Photo from Nando Milano's website.

Photo from Nando Milano’s website.

SP: What is your favorite kind of wine to enjoy with dinner?

Vullo: I don’t have a favorite wine. It depends on what I eat, maybe a great dry Sicilian white or a nice northern Italian full bodied red wine. It really just depends on what I have a feeling for at that moment.

SP: What’s the most popular things on Nando’s menu?

Vullo: Everything! It’s hard at this point to say what is the most popular thing at Nando. People order everything: bolognese, lasagna, branzino, truffle, pollo parmigiana. I think the customers like when I change the specials because they like to try something different.

SP: Can you talk about how the Governor’s stay at home order has affected Nando Milano?

Vullo: The effect at Nando Milano is like for everyone: it’s hard. It’s hard to survive in this time. But what do you do? If the government decides for you to stay home, something is wrong. Hopefully we can open soon with some guidelines, some distance inside the restaurant, a limit of how many people can come inside, and organize the room to be safe for everybody. I cannot see the light right now; I cannot see what will happen next.

SP: Have you made any changes to your hours and menu?

Vullo: The hours have changed in order to accommodate our customers for dinner. We start taking orders at 3:30 p.m. and stop at 8 p.m. during the week and 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Also, we are open for carryout and delivery on Sunday for lunch. The menu has not changed: our regular menu is available as well as weekly specials.

A plate of rigatoni pasta with sausage crumbles, peas, and parmesan. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth.

SP: Can you talk about the menu at Nando right now?

Vullo: Right now, it’s tricky because I try to use everything we have at the restaurant. I don’t buy some particular items because I don’t want them to go to waste. 

SP: I know you’re offering a family special with larger portions. Can you talk about that?

Vullo: The family specials are something I was thinking about even before the quarantine. I wanted to create an opportunity for families to try our food in larger quantities at a discounted price but never sacrificing the high quality. You can see the family specials on our Facebook page.

SP: Can people add on a cannoli to dinner entree orders for carryout?

Vullo: Like I said before, we still have our regular menu where you can order a cannoli or any of our house made desserts. We even update our special menu with new desserts.

SP: How can customers get their Nando? 

Vullo: I was anticipating that things might shut down a couple weeks before because I watched the italian news and knew how dangerous this virus is. So we started to connect with Grubhub and Door Dash and started to organize the carryout and delivery to be ready. 

SP: Is there any alcohol available for carryout?

Vullo: We have a special offer of 50% off all our regular wine and 30% off our cantina wine. A lot of Nando’s wine you cannot find around or at Binny’s because we work with small family companies that import wine from all over Italy.

SP: What else would you like to share with the C-U community?

Vullo: I know that a lot of people in Champaign have been very generous so far to help support us. But not just for Nando, for all local small businesses. We need support from our community. It’s better if everyone stops helping the huge corporations and help the local businesses. It’s so important — especially now.

If you still want to have some gem, some pearl in Champaign, you need to keep your eyes open and support these local restaurants. Because when everything is finished, do you want to go around and try new and good quality food or do you only want to have the option to eat a burger at McDonald’s? We love Champaign, but people need to realize that if they want local businesses to stay around, you have to support them.

Nando Milano
204 N Neil St
4 p.m. to 10 p.m., daily

Food + Drink Editor / / instagram

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