Donatella Mediterranean Bistro
Donatella Majore returns with charm.
There’s something instantly charming about Donatella Majore’s new operation, and that thing is a certain rusticness. But it’s more in the service than in the food. The staff here seems genuinely baffled by the prospect of customers, as if they were completely unprepared for what to do with them. They’re not incompetent. They’re just…surprised. And friendly. A little scattered, maybe. And, as I said, charming, since their behavior lends dinners here an energy akin to first-date jitters. (Not that it’s not odd. Majore and her partner, Paolo di Costanzo, aren’t exactly newbies to this—they chalked up more than enough experience at Majore’s previous effort, the late La Cucina di Donatella of Rogers Park.)
Eventually the staff figures everything out, seating you either in the small dining room, near the refrigerated cases and espresso machines, or outside, under an umbrella on the wide Evanston sidewalks. From either vantage you can fall into a slightly Euro reverie, one that you would be innocent to assume would be heightened by an order of bruschetta. But don’t go there. The bread tastes stale, chewy at best, and the tomatoes on top are pale and tinny. Nothing will snap you out of that reverie quicker.
Get the octopus salad instead, warm tentacles mingling with briny capers and plump olives, all of it coming together into one delicious evocation of the sea. You could follow this with the fish kebabs, one of a handful of entrées from the restaurant’s more Mediterranean (that is, not exclusively Italian) mission. But though there’s nothing quite wrong with these kebabs—the fish (salmon, scallops) and the vegetables are all charred to reach perfect textures—there’s nothing really right about them either. They need an herb rub. Or a sauce. Or a squeeze of lemon and some salt.
So it’s to the more Italian dishes, the oldest tricks in Donatella’s sleeve. There’s her famous lasagna, a dish she once told me would cause riots among her customers should she ever stop offering it. The sheets of pasta are as tender as ricotta, the sauce mellow and balanced. It is comfort food without the heaviness. And it is riot worthy, to be sure.
The ragù bianco, another housemade pasta (this one with a texture hearty enough to sink your teeth into) also needed salt, something to bring out the flavors in the lamb-turkey ragù. But there’s no salt on the table here, and asking can be a little intimidating. You don’t want to insult Majore, who checks in on you occasionally. And the rest of the staff seems so fragile already. Probably best not to fluster them further.
So for dessert, don’t take any chances. Get the Vulcan cake. If it sounds as if it’s related to chocolate molten cake, it is, only much more delicious and evolved. Here a chocolate Bundt cake is filled with gelato and hot fudge (no uncooked cake batter to make you uneasy), and topped with orange liquor. It’s a flusterless dish, because all the servers have to do is watch you scarf the thing down, and then wait for you to order another.