“You want a music editor to write about food?” I asked. This might be more pressure than I bargained for since joining Smile Politely as Music Editor last February. Alyssa assured me it wasn’t a prank and gave me a list of places to pick from for a review. I landed on Nando Milano Trattoria because I hadn’t been there yet, had heard good things, and the thought of eating from a tasting menu sounded like a level of fancy I hadn’t enjoyed since way before COVID. Plus, it was an excuse to bail on my keto diet for a night.
The first thing I noticed about Nando Milano was that it was very dark inside. On this night, it was also extremely busy after the Illini hoops game and possibly people having dinner before the Branford Marsalis show at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. There were so many people packed in a small space, and the volume of the crowd probably made it louder than usual I’m guessing.
At Nando, diners have a choice of tap or sparkling water at the beginning of the meal. When asked my choice, I froze for a moment, thinking back to the last episode of season 1 of Ted Lasso, when Ted’s in Rebecca’s office discussing the next season. I thought I better opt for tap water.
Being so busy, the service wasn’t speedy, but our waitress was extremely friendly and doing her absolute best. She asked us if we had allergies, and we told her we didn’t. She was so excited that she had an allergy-free night so far.
I began my cheat day meal by ordering a glass of the Benvolio pinot grigio ($15), and it was one of the best glasses of wine I’ve had in recent memory. It was very light, fruity, and a little dry, just the right amount.
Even though service was a bit slow, we could tell they were a little understaffed and probably didn’t expect a Saturday night crowd like this. We noticed our waitress was bussing her own tables plus making drinks behind the bar. Despite the seemingly hectic atmosphere and having to wait a little bit, the staff was going above and beyond to keep the ship sailing the whole time we were there.
For Restaurant Week, Nando offers a $43 three-course tasting menu. Antipasti choices included cavoletti ortolani (fried and sautéed veggies), capsante scottate (Pan-seared scallop with rice), and aranci di riso. I chose the arancini, based on my pleasant memory of the tasty rice balls at a take-out Italian place I used to frequent in Franklin Park. Although it took a while for our first course to come out, it smelled and looked amazing.
The outside of the arancini had a perfect texture and crunch. Taking another bite toward the middle, I exalted in the pleasure of gooey, smoked mozzarella melted around bolognese meat sauce. Given the size of the arancini, I only longed for a bigger puddle of the marinara to give it the perfect tomato-taste ratio to the experience.
My partner kept it simple and opted to open with a Caesar salad. At home, we freeze our salad bowls for an hour before serving salad, keeping the leaves fresh and crisp with each bite when the salad is served. We must be spoiled because the warm lettuce felt like it wilted a bit in the mouth. The dressing was tasty yet not overpowering, and the fresh parm made a positive difference.
On the tasting menu, choices for entree included cacio e pepe (paccheri pasta with olive oil and cheese), spaghetti alla carbonara, zupetta di pesce (seafood bouillabaisse), Milanesine (pork tenderloin and veggies) and cavatappi San Marco, which was what I chose. My dining companion got talked into (by me) ordering the sea bass on vegetables, a keto option that I was looking forward to sampling as well.
Our entrees arrived a while later. My first bite of my cavatappi was satisfactory, I would say. For my second bite, I dug deeper for sun-dried tomato, spinach, and minced garlic that sat in the white wine sauce. The sun-dried tomato gave it the little kick I was looking for on that second bite. The white wine sauce was a bit garlicky, but my tolerance for garlic is probably lower than most. I just kept looking for ways to get a bit more of the sauce in each bite, and the garlic may have gotten in the way. The pasta (think thick curly noodles) was cooked al dente, making it the satisfying texture. The key to the whole meal was getting the right ratio of everything on your fork before you put it in your mouth.
The sea bass wasn’t on the Restaurant Week tasting menu, but it lacked the flakiness, buttery texture, and sweet non-fishy taste that I had come to know and love (sea bass is a favorite of mine). The lemon caper sauce needed a bit more tang, as well, but the bed of vegetables was seasoned well and cooked the ideal amount of time.
My companion reluctantly declined dessert (no keto options), but I had three amazing-sounding treats to choose from: panna cotta ai frutti di bosco (Italian custard with mango), cannolo Siciliano (cannolis), and my choice: Nando Milano’s version of tiramisu.
When the dessert came, it looked tiramisu-ish, but I didn’t expect to see it in a cup. Am I uncouth for believing that it’s supposed to look like the tiramisu at Portillo’s? Likely, I am. At a glance, all you could see was the whipped cream with cocoa powder sprinkled on top. But those elements hid the delights that awaited me upon digging in. The first bite was equal parts creamy and crunchy. The crunch came from espresso beans, chopped up and mixed in with the cocoa powder. Digging a little deeper, I was rewarded with a delicious espresso-soaked ladyfinger, pretty soggy, almost the texture of the cream. The whipped cream and cocoa were very tasty, and the crunch of the espresso beans provided a textural experience, initially almost alarming at first crunch, but when the coffee taste hit my palette, I began to understand.
There’s no denying that food is made with care here, and the staff treats the customers just as well. The atmosphere and ambiance of Nando Milano were perfect for a date night. It was busy and loud on a Saturday night, but that’s to be expected with all that was going on in town. Despite that, the staff went out of their way to make sure everything was just right all evening.
Check out Nando’s Restaurant Week tasting menu here.
Nando Milano Trattoria
204 N Neil St
M-F 5 to 10 p.m.
Sa 1 to 10 p.m.
Su 1 to 9 p.m.