If you're heading out to Barrington's newest Italian restaurant, don't expect red and white checkered tabled clothes, wine bottle decor and celebrity photos.
NEAR Restaurant in the Barrington Commons mall is about as Italian-looking as Leonardo DiCaprio. Its clean and simple interior helps keep the focus on the restaurant's main attraction: Italian cuisine at its finest.
Owner and head chef, Gaetano Nardulli, 31, brings authentic -- if not conventional -- Italian food to Barrington from years of experience cooking at fine restaurants in Italy and Chicago.
"Italian food is so much more than spaghetti and meatballs," Nardulli said. "I'm Italian and I'm happy to serve traditional dishes, but I'm more interested in exploring new concepts inspired by Italian cuisine."
The NEAR menu includes just four entrees and five pasta dishes, but together with appetizers (or shared plates), the offerings make for sizable and satisfying meals. Nardulli uses only fresh, locally-purchased ingredients and all his menu items are hand-made, including the pasta. Beautifully presented plates set the stage for a savory dining experience.
Appetizers include garlic shrimp with parsley, bread crumbs and tomato grattinato, fried polenta bites with chives and parmigianno reggiano and ascolana olive croquette with sausage and fennel. Pasta dishes include fettucine bolognese and white pepper, and entrees feature items such as a crispy pork loin wrapped in bacon with shallot puree, corn and scallions.
Becoming a chef wasn't Nardulli's first career choice. But after three years at DePaul University working on a Finance degree, Nardulli experienced an epiphany one day.
"I was falling asleep in my Macroeconomics class everyday for a week straight when I realized I needed to get out of the classroom and into the kitchen."
As Italian immigrants, Nardulli's parents love to cook big meals for their extended family, and the kids always pitched in.
"We never went out to dinner growing up. We didn't have to. All the best food was at home in our kitchen," he said.
After receiving his degree in Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago, Nardulli headed to Italy to soak up all he could about Italian food. He gained first-hand experience working for highly-regarded restaurants in Tuscany and Rome. (Nardulli's graceful black and white photos of Italian scenes hang in his restaurant.)
Back in Chicago, Nardulli worked at Butter and Spiaggia, before joining the nationally acclaimed Schwa in Wicker Park as sous-chef. Ranked by New York Magazine as one of the five hardest reservations to score, Schwa is renowned for innovative food combinations and its chef-to-table service.
"Schwa was an unbelievable experience," Nardulli said. "I worked with some great people there. We inspired each other everyday in a culinary sense. I believe you learn something in the kitchen everyday, no matter where you are."
NEAR can seat up to 50 people in the restaurant, and the bar has an additional 40 seats. Nardulli is starting to see close-to-capacity crowds on the weekends.
"We knew Barrington folks would appreciate contemporary Italian cuisine, and so far, business is good."
A big fan of professional football, Nardulli unwinds after twelve-hour workdays with the NFL Network and his Fantasy Football picks.
"I can't wait for the season to start. My fiance and I have been to every football stadium in the country except Arrowhead in Kansas City. That's next on our list."
NEAR Restaurant is located at 108 Barrington Commons Court.
Hours: Tue - Thu: Lunch 11 a.m. - 2p.m., Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 1 a.m.
Fri - Sat: Lunch 11 a.m. - 2 p.m., Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 2 a.m.
Closed Sunday & Monday