Shticking it to you
New York import Il Mulino has big prices and
an even bigger act
A little bit of shtick works for some restaurants: table-dancing servers at Joe’s Crab Shack, the insult-hurling staff at Ed Debevic’s, food delivered via toy trains at BoxCar Café. Cheap eats, a little “ha-ha” charm, and everyone leaves with expectations met.
But at Il Mulino, a fine-dining Italian restaurant with a Big Apple–sized reputation and prices to match, shtick seems out of place. People expect an unforgettable experience. Recently, I left wanting to forget the whole thing.
There’s no doubt the space is impressive; built in 1874, the Gold Coast mansion is beautiful, with marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers in each of the many wood-rich rooms. But preventing you from admiring the atmosphere as soon as you enter is a giant display of bulging Parmesan wheels, canned tomatoes, ropes of garlic heads, boxes of Barilla pasta and anything else the owners apparently thought looked Italian. You’d expect this at a Macaroni Grill, but here it’s glaringly out of place.
After a heavily accented “buona sera” from the maître d’, we’re led to our table and a blur of male servers begins filling water, bringing four kinds of forgettable bread along with plates of dried-out salami, oil-soaked zucchini and Parmesan chunks. Each of them greets us with another “buona sera,” but their friendliness seems hollow.
Around the same time we determine the starters (save the Parmesan) aren’t worth wasting stomach space, the sommelier approaches and asks, “Did you want wine?” Long story short, the list’s pricing is criminal, our inquiry about glass pours is snootily met with disdain (five picks from a lone California producer) and when asked why the 2003 Barbera D’Alba he’s opening isn’t the 2001 we ordered, the sommelier replies, “Oh, well, I guess we already ran out of that,” while continuing to open it.
Soon the “captain” (a.k.a. head waiter) dramatically launches into an impossibly long spiel about specials we’d already overheard five times. Looking over the menu, you can’t help but be shocked by the prices: $20 apps, $40 entrées, $12 sides. It’s impossible not to assess value, no matter how good the food.
Which turns out to be so-so. House-made pappardelle is thick and pasty, but the punchy, herb-packed, tomato-sauced sausage saves the dish. A tender and flavorful veal chop is pounded to within an eighth of an inch of its life, the layer of acidic tomatoes and arugula thicker than the meat. Giant langostinos are delicious, but the blah and gloopy risotto they’re coupled with and the $46 price for four detract from their buttery flavor. A side of garlicky rapini is drowning in oil. Desserts—from the ubiquitous tiramisu to the premade sorbet-filled fruit—border on offensively thoughtless. The theatrical, ten-minute-long tableside whisking of the sabayon is annoying enough to turn off even the old-school blue bloods this practice is meant to impress.
Finally, a server hauls over a pitcher of unflavored grappa and pours us a glass. I notice the bright, untouched, fruit-packed glass jars of grappa decorating the mantel, and can’t help but think whatever’s in there must taste better than this gratis gasoline. Or maybe, like Il Mulino, they’re just for show.
Il Mulino1150 N Dearborn St between Elm and Division Sts (312-440-8888). El: Red to Clark/Division. Bus: 36, 70, 151 (24 hrs). Open: Dinner (closed Sun). Average main course: $35.