Illustration: Greg Clarke

This week I want to tell you about the best place to eat white truffles right now (spoiler alert: Il Milanese Ristorante), but first let’s talk truffles. 

Several months ago, after shopping at Fresh Market Place in Bucktown, I came across a shopping cart filled with bags of truffle potato chips set up by the exit. “Free” said a sign stuck in the cart. Just get these out of here; no one wants them.

I don’t pass on free, so I brought a bag home, ripped it open, and got blasted in the face with the smell of 2,4-dithiapentane, the lab-produced chemical used to approximate the smell of wild tubers. One year Mariano’s handed out bags of truffle popcorn at the James Beard Awards at the Lyric Opera, and when you walked into the theater the smell hung in the air like wet dog fur at a grooming salon. Real truffles smell like this compound in the way lemons, I suppose, smell like Pledge furniture polish. Don’t confuse them, and you may discover actual truffle love. 

The species you’re most likely to encounter in restaurants are Tuber aestivum, a.k.a. “summer truffles” whose season ended in August, and Tuber uncinatum, the “Burgundy truffles” whose season is just finishing up. They are similar with bumpy, pitch-black skin and pale interiors. Neither is terribly expensive as far as truffles go (maybe $25 for a nice half-ounce specimen), neither really stands up to heat, so the best thing to do is slice or grate them fresh over a dish, where their presence will add a fleeting layer of dimension to other flavors. I brought a few Burgundy truffles and a microplane zester to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, and the mashed potatoes and gravy had never been happier. 

Right now, in early December, we’re in the peak season for Tuber magnatum, the Alba white truffles from northern Italy that the food world loses its collective shit over every year. These smell a bit like garlic, and they are unholy expensive. Yet they have an almost alchemic property: Everything they touch seems to take on their essence; the flavor doesn’t just hit your palate, it swells. 

Several times I’ve come close to pulling the trigger on an online order before (about $200 for a half ounce) before coming to my senses. Yet, I hate to see the season pass me up, which is why I was thrilled to encounter the white truffle menu at Il Milanese.

This North Center spot quietly replaced the former L&M Parkside at 2201 W. Montrose Ave. in April and has flown under the radar in a city where Italian restaurants sprout like dandelions. This one, from a trio who met at downtown’s long-shuttered Bice Ristorante, is like the northern Italian restaurant you used to love in 1995 before you had ever heard the word “burrata.” There’s a fine osso buco served old-school with saffron risotto and a pick for the bone marrow, and a barely-dressed arugula salad with shaved parm, lemon juice, and bits of fried artichoke. The housemade pastas tend toward creamy and taste just fine. The regulars love this place. More than a few hugged one of the owners, Carlo Maggi, who was tending the door. 

The osso buco served old-school with saffron risotto and a pick for the bone marrow. Photo by Carlo Maggi

This is all to say Il Milanese is an on-point neighborhood restaurant, if not a destination for those searching out the latest and greatest, but a place that can make a lot of people happy. That’s why, I think, they’re helping folks get a white truffle experience without the kind of luxury surcharge you’d find in one of the city’s gastronomic temples. The menu offers a variety of simple dishes — from soft polenta to beef carpaccio and buttered pasta — that best showcase the ways in which this ingredient can do its wild thing. We ordered the risotto, which was a perfect canvas. It was not wavy and creamy (“all’onda”) as is the preferred style today, but it was not as ungodly rich as some can be. Maggi anointed the truffles tableside with a generous hand; I’m sure they’re not making any more money on this $65 dish than they do on the $24 saffron and sausage risotto, and that’s what makes you love a restaurant: They’re sharing something beautiful because they can. 

Sushi Surprise

Nomonomo Sushi (2096 N. Milwaukee Ave.) completes the Logan Square Milwaukee Avenue trifecta for the restaurant group that owns Wasabi ramen and Nomonomo izakaya across the street. It is also where their in-house sushi expert, Hiromichi Sasaki, has landed fresh off his gig at Omakase Takeya in the West Loop. Of note: Sasaki serves a nightly menu of fish imported directly from Tokyo’s Toyosu Market — the kinds of items like buri (mature yellowtail), surume ika (tender Pacific squid), and katsuo (fresh bonito) that make sushi aficionados ecstatic. I’ve been once for a full meal and liked the sushi despite some new restaurant service jitters. Keeping an eye on it.

X Marks the Spot

For many years, Xi’an Cuisine (225 W. Cermak Rd.), a small restaurant in Chinatown, has been one of the few purveyors of the distinctive cooking of Shanxi Province, which is famous for its many kinds of hand-cut noodles and rou jia mo, griddled flatbreads that are split and filled with chopped or braised meat, like Sloppy Joes. Now the restaurant has opened a second branch in the West Loop (as well as a third in Naperville) where the menu reads a bit less traditional but very fun. We ordered some awesome delivery the other night: a cumin lamb flatbread, chicken in lettuce wraps (better than P.F. Chang’s), crispy-skinned duck, and tri-color liang pi – noodles I’ve been obsessed with since I visited the city of Xi’an (to see its famous terracotta soldiers) decades ago, and then rediscovered at Xi’an Fine Foods in New York. (You can read about my obsession here.)

It Takes Guts

Gopchang Story (1735 Milwaukee Ave., Glenview) — a multinational Korean chain specializing in beef intestines, large and small — has opened in the same Glenview mini-mall that houses branches of Paik’s Noodle, So Gong Dong Tofu, Bonchon, and other big Korean chains. Please enjoy this video of a satisfied customer enjoying the food and making the slurpiest, snarfiest noises on the internet. I have not made the trek yet: Who’s game?