Hoping to change things up, Evanston's Pensiero Ristorante has tapped Brandon Baltzley to head up its kitchen. Baltzley has been working at the restaurant, along with sous chef Kevin McMullen (Kith & Kin), for three weeks, but wanted to get things in line and revamp the menu before making any sort of announcement, which they did via video exclusively to Eater.
Before, the menu was like any other typical "Italian" suburban restaurant, but the new menu will see the restaurant becoming "a really solid Italian joint staying true to Italian cuisine," Baltzley said. "The food is a mix of rustic Italian with modern techniques." Baltzley overhauled the entire menu, save two of the restaurant's signature dishes: Tagliatelle al Tartufo and the molten bittersweet chocolate budino, both of which had a little tweaking by the new team, which also include new general manager Marcello Cancelli, who spent many years as GM at Carlos in Highland Park.
To showcase the new style, Baltzley will keep things simple in general concept, but have more forward-thinking techniques to add the wow factor, like in the Wagyu short rib dish where they take parsnip and shave it down to look like a bone, then confit it in beef fat to give it the appearance of bone marrow. They're wrapping watercress with pomegranate leather in a dish with figs and quail; and also doing buttermilk panna cotta with sweet basil puree, banana tuile and parmesan bubbles.
And while many of the meats already came broken down and some sauces came pre-made before, Baltzley said his crew is now bringing in whole animals—lamb, hogs, rabbit—to butcher in house and they're making all their own pasta, bread and pastries as well. They're sourcing the ingredients as close to Chicago as possible, when possible, and working with farms like Pinn-Oak Ridge and La Pryor.
Pensiero has had a loyal following from its days as Va Pensiero, and Baltzley respects that, but wants to also attract people from the city. He said the majority of regulars have so far really enjoyed the changes, but knows he'll likely be scrutinized based on his past experiences with Mado, from which his team walked out of after a month, and Tribute, from which he parted ways to enter rahab. This new gig will give the chef, who is hosting a pop-up dinner at Pensiero on Oct. 17 with Longman & Eagle's Jared Wentworth, an opportunity to change people's opinion about him.
"A lot of people were probably expecting me to do crazy food. This is me cooking. This is food," Baltzley said. "People can come in and eat something that's delicious and not have to think about it too much ... even thought we've thought about it a lot."