When Cucina Paradiso opened on North Boulevard, I remember excitedly telling a business associate that it was “just like downtown.” There was no irony in that comment: I thought this then-new Italian restaurant was the best thing to hit Oak Park since we moved here from Chicago in 1983. Before Maya del Sol, and way before Novo, this well-designed place (with a bar!) seemed the epitome of Oak Park swank, sleek, urbane and hip.
That was 22 years ago; now, Cucina Paradiso has undergone a renovation to rejuvenate and update its image. Gone are the white tablecloths (which generally now feel a little old-timey), in are new banquettes (cozy!), though many of the posters remain on the walls: you’ll still recognize the places. My main focus, of course, was on the renovated menu; although they’ve kept some signature features, there’re also some new items to keep it all fresh.
The grilled octopus ($15) is new to the menu, and Cucina Paradiso’s take on this classic is novel, and it’s a novelty that works: the tentacles are done fork-tender, but what sets this version apart are hazlenuts, Brussels sprouts, potato hash and pancetta (seafood loves pig: it’s a fact). This a somewhat complicated and unusual collection of flavors and textures, toothsome sea creature and crunchy nuts, and we liked it a lot. Added bonus: with the potatoes and sprouts, you can have this as a kind of starter salad, and thus avoid that big boring bowl of greens our conscience always tells us we should have.
Fried broccoli florets ($6) could, in other hands, have been disappointing (as we have found them to be, elsewhere, in the past). These little bundles of green with light breading and good crisp exterior were fantastic, crunchy outside and lush on the inside, so simply satisfying. If you have kids or childish adults who won’t eat their broccoli, these crisp florets will likely turn them around.
The pistachio pesto pizza ($14) which had a beautiful crust (kind of a cross between Neapolitan and Chicago tavern style) but, alas, any hint of pistachio seemed lost under the pecorino, Romano and ricotta. Given the title, I was expecting more of the namesake nut to come through. The pie was, however, better on day two, when we had some as leftovers: the nut, somehow, seemed more apparent on reheat.
Spinach and ricotta ravioli ($17) could have been all we had for dinner; this is a super-rich platter of food, with grilled cherry tomatoes and bits of asparagus adding a vegetal counterpoint. If you’re dining solo, or have any sense of restraint at all when it comes to food, you could be quite happy sharing this ravioli, a side salad, and two glasses of Montepulciano (a mid-weight red, kind of like Merlot or Pinot Noir). Of course, we showed no such restraint.
Pork tenderloin ($21) was three medallions wrapped in bacon, seared for light caramelization, with bean ragu and spinach. Now, it might seem redundant to wrap a pork loin in bacon, but surrounding a medallion in bacon is a good way to keep the juices in and for a meat dish, bacon is usually a welcome addition.
Though we were, by this point in the meal, pretty much tapped out, we ordered the tiramisu, which I usually get for dessert when it’s on the menu, because it was Dean Martin’s favorite. Having that suave guy’s fav seemed right in Cucina Paradiso, which opened the year Dino died and is probably still the swankiest joint in Oak Park.