Pasta Paradiso

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Merló is a splendid place for navel grazing. Along with Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto di Parma, and balsamic vinegar, tortellini, those little filled pasta nuggets, are a crown jewel of Emilia-Romagna cuisine.

At Merló the handmade tortellini and tortelloni (same thing, larger scale) are divine, delicate packets filled with varying cheeses and meats. Among the five kinds on the menu, tortellini in brodo (here a pure greaseless hen broth) is austere and irresistible, while tortelloni with porcini mushroom sauce is rich and earthy. Tagliatelle bolognese, another specialty from this region, saturates the taste buds with its creamy, long-simmered meat and vegetable sauce. The same premier ragù gets layered into the delightful spinach-pasta lasagne. The most adventurous of the 15 pastas is green tagliolini (ribbons thinner than tagliatelle) tossed with Sardinian bottarga (pressed dried mullet roe). It tastes provocatively briny, and the added kick of red chilies makes this an intense experience. Even the breadbasket includes rusticated crackers made with pasta dough.

But there’s more to Merló than noodles. For appetizers, it’s hard to beat the prosciutto di Parma served with sliced pear, chunks of Parmesan, and huge breadsticks. Up there as well are the raw artichoke salad and the dense pistachio-studded terrine of prosciutto, veal, and pork tenderloin with peppery balsamic-marinated cantaloupe slices. And two entrées deserve special mention: the pan-seared walleye pike alongside baby spinach salad with apples and pine nuts dressed in cherry vinegar and olive oil, and the thinly sliced strip steak served room temperature under an arugula blanket with balsamic vinegar and grated Parmesan. The wine list needs improvement; still, I spotted a supple and fruity 2000 Dolcetto d’Alba Sandrone that nicely navigated these courses.

Giampaolo Sassi and his wife, Luisa Silvia Marani (also chef), and their son Stefano co-owned a restaurant in Bologna until they moved to Chicago last year and opened Merló. Making it real is all they know, respecting prime ingredients in the Italian tradition by presenting them with a minimum of clutter. The understated setting is true to the spirit-Italian furniture, soothing sponged peach walls, and low-key yet well-trained service. During our last meal here, we reminisced about the Italian countryside as we lingered over a bracing budino bianco (citrus custard pudding), good espresso, and a cold limoncello liqueur-a serious citrus jolt for the road home.

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