Traveling to Italy via Division Street

Nando Milano Executive Chef Alessio Vullo, who hails from Sicily, shows off his culinary creations at this cozy Wicker Park spot. Each Wednesday through lae March, the restaurant will feature specialties from different Italian regions.

We Chicagoans – especially those of us who love overseas travel, or long to experience it – are a lucky bunch. Not only are we a short ride away from two airports with international destinations, but we can experience fabulous other cultures right here in the city by way of our taste buds. This Italophile took a trip to bella Italia last week by way of Nando Milano Trattoria, a cozy spot in Wicker Park that takes the chill off cold winter nights.

At 2114 West Division Street, Nando Milano – the namesake of Nando, the executive chef’s Italian Dachshund – is a testament to authentic Italian charm infused with loft-inspired Chicago chic. Exposed brick walls provide the backdrop for bottles of regional Italian wine and framed posters celebrating la bella vita italiana (the beautiful Italian life). And rather than being trite, Rat Pack-era tunes like “Mambo Italiano” and “Volare” provide a perfectly retro soundtrack to a leisurely evening, whether you’re spending it as a romantic couple, a large group with kids, or da sola, as I did when dining alone.

With little more than a dozen tables and seats at the bar, Nando Milano reminds me of trattorie I’ve loved when in Florence, Verona, and Milan. And like those places, regular guests fill the place, returning again and again to a favorite neighborhood spot. Nattily dressed and charismatic maitre’d Luca Bellavia floats between tables during the night, ensuring all guests feel transported from Chi-town to some charming place in Italia. No one’s a stranger here for long.

The reason for my Nando visit? This charming trattoria, owned by Italian-born Dario Vullo and his American fiancée Amy Yetasook, recently announced a new “Regioni d’Italia” dinner series. Each Wednesday through the end of March, Nando Milano’s Executive Chef (and Dario’s brother) Alessio Vullo is creating a special dish—and offering a matching wine—for 12 of Italy’s 20 regions.

First up on January 8 was Tuscany. I visited last Wednesday when the restaurant featured the northwestern region of Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian), home of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

Although the Vullo family hails from Sicily and its members have decades of restaurant and bar experience in Sicily as well as the Italian cities of Milan, Verona and Bologna, Chef Alessio loves introducing diners to the rich diversity of Italian cuisine—and culture.

“I would like the customers to come to Nando Milano to feel like family,” says the chef, who moved to Chicago two years ago from Bologna at his brother’s invitation. “The same people come (here) two or three times a week. Chicago is like a little Italy.”

While Alessio sometimes calls his mom in Sicily for recipe advice, he infuses Nando’s dishes with influences from across Italy. Others are courtesy of his Sicilian nonna, or grandma. But the influences are always seasonal—including the imported Italian black truffles he loves to shave over ravioli, gnocchi, and even eggs.

The restaurant’s even been blessed with recognition from the MICHELIN Guide, making the famed global guide’s list of ‘comfortable’ recommended restaurants in Chicago. In its write-up, MICHELIN notes, “Charismatic host Dario Vullo has installed his own little slice of Milan in Wicker Park. The chic trattoria offers an intensely Italian menu and wine list to match the authentic accents of Vullo and family.” (Check out Nando Milano’s website, which offers a tasty rundown of Italy’s many regions – and the restaurant’s dishes and wines that hail from those parts of the country.)

I started my tour of the Piedmont region with Polenta al Taleggio e Portobello, two perfectly crispy wedges of tender-on-the-inside polenta drizzled with a fondue of bold Taleggio cheese and al dente asparagus. The evening’s special gnocchi was served in a lick-the-plate-delicious butter sage sauce, with tender, sautéed sage leaves added for good measure. I chose the Piedmont menu special main dish: a fork-tender pork shank prepared in a Barbaresco wine sauce accented with dried cherries and served over sautéed rapini and roasted potatoes. Perfectly complementing the meal were two excellent glasses of Barbaresco, crafted from one of Piedmont’s most renowned grapes.

In homage to Piedmont, for dessert Chef Alessio created a Panna cotta alla Gianduia, an Italian custard infused with gianduia, a sweet chocolate creation from Turin made with hazelnut paste. He garnished it fresh fruit, crushed hazelnuts, and a caramel sauce. A sublime serving of house-made limoncello, a digestif especially popular in southern Italy, perfectly rounded out the meal. But be warned—the portions are definitely American-sized, rather than the single servings you’ll find in Italy. The good news is that you’ll have leftovers to take home (although in Italia, no restaurant is packing up your food for you to eat later … so don’t ask!).

I missed Nando Milano’s opening back in 2012 as I was living, but better discovering it late than never. I’ll certainly make it back for more of these delicious Wednesday night regional menus. Next up on the culinary trek around Italia:

January 29: Liguria

February 5: Campania

February 12: Sardinia

February 19: Lombardy

February 26: Emilia-Romagna

March 5: Lazio

March 12: Umbria

March 19: Veneto

March 26: Valle d’Aosta

As someone who spent nearly one year in Florence, Italy, and over the years has traveled up and down the Italian boot, I’m pretty picky about la cucina italiana. That makes Nando Milano a special find—and not only for the food and wine. It also serves up a generous helping of Italian friendliness and hospitality, something we Americans idealize in gorgeous Hollywood films such as Under the Tuscan Sun, Eat Pray Love, and Letters to Juliet.

I get to Italy far less frequently than I’d like, so I’m always on the lookout for slices of Italian life on this side of the pond. Seeking out restaurants like this one, where the staff and chef have recently arrived in Chicago from their native country, not only gives me a chance to speak and practice my broken l’italiano, but also offers a way to reconnect with the special times I’ve spent in bella Italia over the years. Even though I visited Nando Milano on a “school night,” planning to spend a couple hours, I ended up there for nearly four. Such is how one dines in Italy, where a night out for dinner is a night out. Restaurateurs aren’t hurrying you out the door during your main course; while you’re there, you’re family. Talk about a delicious way to nurture my ‘inner Italian!’

So get thyself to Nando Milano – ideally on a Wednesday for one of these regional tasting tours or on one of the trattoria’s other themed nights Monday through Thursday. It’s far cheaper than boarding a flight to Italy – but just as delicious.

Maureen_Jenkins

About Maureen Jenkins

Maureen Jenkins is a food/travel writer and communications professional who's visited nearly 35 countries and territories, lived in Florence, Italy, and recently spent a year living in a charming village near Paris, France. The self-proclaimed 'urban travel girl' talks travel, food and wine – abroad and in Chicago – in "TCW Travel Connection.” Read more of her thoughts on living globally at UrbanTravelGirl.com.