1566 Oak Ave.
Va Pensiero, Evanston’s most upscale Italian restaurant, is hard to spot. Tucked inside the Margarita European Inn, the valet parking attendant at the curb is your only clue to the romantic dining experience that awaits.
Upon stepping inside, my attention was first captured by the vast array of wine, which are all imported from Italy. Va Pensiero also imports select ingredients like pasta, prosciutto, and parmigiano-reggiano directly from Italy. Most of the other diners are older and the restaurant is large and reminiscent of a banquet hall. You definitely feel like you have to speak in hushed tones. This could be an ideal candlelight date destination though it risks coming off as a bit formal and stiff.
To begin, I had the romaine lettuce salad with Granny Smith apples, spiced walnuts and Pommery mustard vinaigrette ($9). I was impressed with the combination of flavors in my salad, particularly the light and tasty vinaigrette. The vinaigrette really complemented the crispness of the salad without overwhelming the apples and walnuts. It was a refreshing change from drowning wilting baby spinach in ranch dressing.
Next to me, a patron ordered the tagliatelle tossed with butter, mushrooms and parmigiano-reggiano ($21). The plate of pasta arrived atop a wheel of Parmesan. The waiter then emptied the dish into a hole carved in the cheese wheel and tossed the steaming pasta to coat it with fresh Parmesan. It was a fun bit of showmanship that I would like to sample on a future visit.
My entree, Wild Caught Black Bass ($38), provided a bit of table side entertainment as well. The bass was filleted right in front of me and presented over grilled eggplant, mushrooms and red pepper. The fish was very fresh and served with a unique salsa verdi that was quite flavorful but did not overpower the taste of the fish. The vegetables were plump and juicy, grilled with just a touch of sea salt. Va Pensiero excels at allowing its quality ingredients and precise preparation to speak for themselves.
After an impeccable first two courses, dessert did not quite live up to my expectations. There is the option to order regular size or mini-sized desserts, so I chose several minis. The Venetian tiramisu ($9 regular; $4 mini) was only a slight step above Trader Joe’s and the Tuscan apple crostata ($8 regular, $4 mini) was a bit stale, though the accompanying mascarpone gelato was light and creamy. The bittersweet chocolate budino ($9 regular, $3.5 mini) was the best of the trio, with a rich and satisfying molten chocolate center and a scoop of mocha gelato on the side. Next time I will opt for the signature vanilla-mascarpone cheesecake ($9 regular, $4 mini).
The waitstaff were polished but unpretentious and Va Pensiero is definitely worth returning to. It’s pricey for anything but a special occasion, though, so it’s a good choice if parents are visiting and willing to foot the bill.
Update: Spelling of Va Pensiero corrected from “Van Pensiero.” Thanks to commenter Krislyn for point out the error.