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Hoffman Estates restaurant review: Amore Mio a diamond in retail rough

It's next to a tanning parlor, a few doors from a dry cleaner and close to a Blockbuster and Jewel.  A typical suburban strip center where almost anything and everything can be found.

But it's somewhat surprising to discover a restaurant with the depth and scope of Amore Mio in a location usually occupied by fast-food, takeout and chop suey joints.  There it sits, a culinary diamond in the retail rough.  A trattoria that, since showing up eight years ago, is quite capable of matching the hot Italian spots dish for dish, flavor for flavor.

With its nondescript storefront facade and no glaring signage, Amore Mio is barely noticable from the road, offering little or no clue of what to expect.  Step inside, however, and there are turn-ons at every turn.

The 62-seat space favors simplicity over shtick.  Faux stucco walls, blond wood and linen napery are accented with food art and a wine rack.  There's no bar, not much wiggle room and the din can get clamorous, but not enough to detract from a gratifying dining experience.

In charge here are Nicola (Nick) and son Antonio (Tony) Barbanente, members of a family that owns seven other respected Italian restaurants in the city and suburbs.  Nick works the front of the house, Tony is the chef.

By and large, Tony's cooking is why diners adore Amore.  It's innovative, flavorful and attractively presented.  Freshness is emphasized by Nick's daily visits to the market to personally select produce, seafood and other foodstuff.

While the menu includes Italian trademarks like chicken parmegiana and spaghetti with meatballs, the nightly specials earn a "wow" reaction.  This is where Tony takes taste buds on a trip down adventure avenue.

Starters are stellar.  Calamari, often rubbery and chewy, are whole, tender, baked and served atop a melange of roasted butternut squash, caramelized onion and mixed greens.  Different, too, was roasted eggplant crowned with sun-dried tomatoes, pecorino cheese and pine nuts, invigorated with caramelized garlic puree.

Nick must have made some prize catches at the market that day, enabling Tony to apply his talents to sea bass, salmon and tilapia.  The bass was done in the Mediterranean manner -- baked with garlic, capers and olives in a scintillating white wine sauce scented with bay leaves.

Pasta is the biggest feather in Tony's toque.  Freshly made basil ravioli packed with ricotta and roasted eggplant in a sweet onion tomato gravy was strictly A-list.  So was ravioli stuffed with ground veal and vegetables anointed with a creamy black truffle tomato mixture.

No dropoff in surprises or flavors when it's time for dessert.  Homemade and heavenly are torts with almond cream and pear slices topped burnt caramel gelato, plus warm chocolate souffle drizzled with caramel.  Service is accomodating and amiable.

Amore Mio, 1457 Palatine, Hoffman Estates, is open nightly except Sunday for dinner only.  Entrees check out from $13.95 to $22.95.  Reservations suggested.  (847) 358-5506.  amoremioil.com.

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