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Reviews: Italian spots La Buona Vita and La Notte brighten western suburbs

A look at two newish places in the western suburbs: La Notte opened in November, while La Buona Vita recently debuted a new look and menu.

When is a new restaurant not a new restaurant?

Today we take a look at two newish places in the western suburbs. La Notte Ristorante Italiano in Oak Park opened in November but is a virtual copy of 12-year-old La Notte Cafe in Berwyn; La Buona Vita in La Grange has been open more than two years, but chef/owner Terry Rempert recently debuted a new look and menu.

La Notte Ristorante Italiano

A more sophisticated version of its older sibling, La Notte Ristorante Italiano is a tiny gem in downtown Oak Park, seating about 50 under a pitched, timber-trimmed ceiling and twinkling white lights.

Owners are Pat Liska and chef Giovanni Mateo Mancini. A native of Bari who incorporates Italian influences from around his native country, Mancini offers an intimate, personal cooking style. If a dish bears his signature — the Gio carbonara, a frequent special, or the clams a mio modo (my way) — it’s likely a dish of which he’s especially proud.

The menu lists more than a dozen pasta dishes and a similar number of main courses, but servers (impressively well-versed in the myriad options) are quick to inform guests that special requests are more than welcome.

"I have no problem changing anything," Mancini says of his dishes. "And as long as I have the ingredients, I’ll make anybody anything Italian."

For openers, order the shareable burrata antipasto plate, a fist-size creamy cheese globe over basil pesto, surrounded by well-charred country bread, artichoke hearts and soft drapes of thin-sliced speck. Creamy polenta la Notte, fortified with house-made Barese sausage and peas, black mussels in marinara (or white wine sauce), and the aforementioned clams a mia modo (a clams casino variant) are all good starting choices.

Worthy pasta picks abound, including the pillowy cavatelli with more of that good Barese sausage, and orecchietti with shrimp, sun-dried tomatoes and rapini. Risotto is offered in various guises, including a four-cheese version ($23) and the seafood-studded risotto di mare ($36).

A thick, well-roasted pork chop with Vesuvio-style potatoes and veal marsala highlight the meatier choices; lobster tail, filet mignon and veal chop — all at market price — are there for the splurgers.

Dessert is not a priority. If you choose one, make it the crumbly, light ricotta cheesecake, based on Mancini’s grandmother’s recipe.

You can drink well here. There are some pleasant cocktails on offer, but the real fun is in the modestly priced wine list — predominantly red, heavy on Italian producers and loaded with more than three dozen under-$50 options.

La Notte Ristorante Italiano

118 N. Marion St., Oak Park

708-948-7576

Tribune rating: one star

Open: Dinner Monday to Saturday

Prices: Pastas, main courses $15-$36

Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V

Reservations: Strongly recommended

Noise: Conversation-challenged

La Buona Vita

When the chef bug bit Terry Rempert, he sold his 20-year-old printing business and, after earning a culinary degree, took over Marconi’s, a popular spot in downtown La Grange. Though he quickly renamed it La Buona Vita (the good life), other changes were more incremental, as much for the customers’ comfort level as his own. In mid-January, Rempert unveiled a redecorated dining room (new colors, new lighting and an eye-catching, circa-1850s map of Italy), a new cocktail program and new menu items.

The dining room is lovely (and usually packed). The menu remains a work in progress.

The menu arrives in a heavy, embossed-cover binder filled with plastic-sleeved pages. Fifteen pastas, nine red-meat entrees, seven chicken, eight seafood — not to mention a half-dozen daily specials on a separate sheet — make up a daunting assortment to contemplate, one that suggests the precise opposite of what a scratch kitchen (Rempert bought an imported extruder to make his own pastas) wants to convey. Cut the menu to a single page, train your waiters to inform guests that their old favorites are available on request, and LBV’s message will be far more clear.

Dining at LBV is a value proposition. There are rotating featured discounts each weekday. Entrees include soup or salad, and the salad is better than it has to be. Portions are substantial.

The grilled calamari gets dinner off to an eye-catching start. Calamari-steak slices, tossed with olive oil, garlic and some red-pepper flakes, are coddled in endive leaves, arrayed like petals around a center of mixed greens and chopped tomatoes. Stuffed banana peppers, an occasional special, aren’t nearly as camera-worthy, but the lively peppers, and the sausage-spinach-mozzarella-marinara filling, make for fun eating. Artichokes Francese (egg batter, lemon-butter sauce) are messy but tasty.

The chef’s heart is more in the pastas than the proteins. All the pastas I tried (I include the very good lobster risotto for efficiency’s sake) were terrific, among them an appropriately lusty linguini puttanesca and a buttery but gently briny linguini with clams. A simple penne dish with hearty sausage, rosemary and tomato-cream sauce was everything you’d want in such a dish, and short-rib ravioli in a murky porcini-mushroom sauce was the star of one of my visits.

By contrast, veal saltimbocca was solid but uninspiring, and a strip steak special one night, advertised as a sous-vide-and-sear preparation, had been overcooked to a grayish, flavorless lump. I might have griped that my strip steak was bone-in, but at least I had something to bring home to the pooch.

Rempert cleverly turns his profiteroles into dining-room advertisements by doubling up on the ice cream; when this towering plate is carried to a table, you can see other guests taking notice. It’s just vanilla gelato with chocolate, caramel or raspberry sauces, but the choux-pastry puffs are good, and to see one is to want one.

The beverage program includes a large number of affordable (less than $50) Italian wines and a reserve list for those in a mood to spend. A nice assortment of craft beers and a list of cocktails that includes Italian twists of classic drinks (Sicilian mule, anyone?) round out the options, which are even more appealing midweek ($6 cocktails Thursday, half-price on certain wine bottles Wednesday).

La Buona Vita

15 W. Calendar Ave., La Grange

708-352-1621

Tribune rating: one star

Open: Dinner Monday to Saturday

Prices: Pastas, main courses $11.95-$27.95

Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V

Reservations: Strongly recommended

Noise: Conversation-challenged

Twitter @PhilVettel

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