"I think that there are a few places out here that are very high quality but they're very expensive," said chef and owner John des Rosier.
Des Rosier understands the clientele up here, mainly because he also runs a restaurant in Lake Bluff. But he wants to fill a growing niche.
"There's a large gap where most people can afford to go out on a regular, weekly basis and eat at restaurants that are both high quality, that focus on service and care about their customers, that use local farms for all of their ingredients, there really isn't like that out here," he said.
That chitarra-cut pasta? He tosses it with Thai chilies and veal meatballs, plus a chunky pomodoro sauce, then dots it with creamy ricotta for simple comfort. A thin, white pizza gets an 18-month aged gouda, plus pancetta - the Italian cured bacon - for a salty, rich kind of flatbread. But there's much more than pizza and pasta.
"Restaurants in America, certainly on the North Shore that use things like chicken parmigiana and Caesar salads, those things aren't Italian at all, they're just not," he said.
And this is where Moderno excels: oily, pickled sardines with rustic bread and a bright, lemon and fennel salad; grilled octopus with Spanish olives and a grainy mustard sauce; even wild walleye with raw artichokes lightly dressed in a tomato and green olive sauce.. reminders of Mediterranean simplicity, not cliche Italian-American.
"We're definitely trying to push. We want to show what real Italian cuisine is supposed to be and then just kind of tweak it a bit for our own way," said des Rosier.
So like Vie in Western Springs, or des Rosiers' other restaurant - Inovasi in Lake Bluff - Moderno is proving that suburban dining doesn't have to be familiar or predictable all the time. It can, in fact, be just as interesting as anywhere else in the city.
There are other decent options nearby, including Benjamin, Real Urban Barbeque and a gelato shop, but for pure nostalgia - and a great Chicago dog - he says Michael's is still the best.
1850 2nd St., Highland Park
(847) 433-8600 http://modernohp.com