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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Riverwest Rarity

Nessun Dorma’s generous fare

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Everybody likes a good deal at a restaurant, especially when the food proves as good as the prices. One of these rarities is located in the Riverwest area: Nessun Dorma, which opened more than five years ago in a former corner tavern.

Owners Dean Cannestra and Joe Gilsdorf chose the name from a tune in the Puccini opera Turandot. I remember the place before it became Nessun Dorma—a few decades ago, this was where the newly started Lakefront Brewery introduced its first product, Riverwest Stein Beer, to the public. The bar area still looks much the same, but Nessun Dorma also has two smaller dining rooms with seats that fill quickly.

Given the restaurant’s operatic name, the good list of inexpensive wines is not a surprise, and the beer list is also decent. Large cans of Bitburger, from Germany, are a mere $2.

The menu is focused on lighter fare with an Italian touch—bruschetta, antipasti and panini. The most expensive item is $8.50. The crostini pizzaiola uses the term “bruschetta” lightly, as the slices of bread are thick and the texture light. It is topped with chopped tomato flavored with basil and garlic, as well as melted fresh mozzarella.

The antipasti fare even better. Caponata ($6.50) is the Sicilian spread of eggplant and tomato served with wedges of flatbread. It brings less tomato than many caponatas, but still proves to be a vegetarian delight. There is also a generous amount of sliced provolone and fontinella cheese. For value, the ciccio ($8.50) is unbeatable. This entre offers sliced deli meats—Genoa salami, pepperoni and capicola—with more of the same cheeses and assorted olives and pepperoncini. The vinegar peppers seem to appear on nearly every plate. Bread is also included, this time crusted with sesame seeds.

Be sure to try the soup of the day ($2.50-$4). A cream of asparagus lived up to expectations—creamy and not starchy; another nice vegetarian gem.

Nessun Dorma goes beyond these finger foods and always offers a daily special. One Saturday found prime rib served with a roasted shallot mustard sauce and mashed potatoes. The price of $14 included a salad of leaf lettuces with a delicate vinaigrette—an exceptional value. Another evening (lunches are not served here) found shrimp arrabiata with penne pasta ($10). Again a salad was included, and the shrimp were shelled with just the tails remaining. Arrabiata (“angry” in Italian) is accomplished with a bit of hot pepper in the tomato. This version is just a little angry, not ferocious, and is another excellent meal deal.

It is easy to see why Nessun Dorma is so popular. On a recent blustery winter day, not even 6 inches of snow could deter customers. If you intend to order a special, however, plan on arriving early. It’s a no-brainer to figure out why a $14 prime rib special sells out quickly. If the special is gone by the time you arrive, the regular menu fare is a fine alternative. Don’t be in a rush when dining here—and in return, no one will rush you.

NESSUN DORMA
2778 N. Weil St. (414) 264-8466 $-$$ Credit Cards: MC, VS Smoking: At bar

Photos by Jessica Kaminski