It was, I blush to admit, love at first sight. We’re talking a slow-motion kind of attraction here—the stuff Barry White songs are made for—where the world slows to a crawl and you can’t see, hear, or think about anything but the object of your affection. Heat, fire, and desire: I felt all three.
My wife gently kicked me under the table—twice, if I recall—to try break that ol’ black magic spell, but I just couldn’t help myself. I have a weakness for wood-burning ovens, especially the curvy, blue-tiled beauties that can turn out ultra-crispy pizzas.
You’ll forgive me, won’t you? When you design a dining room as inviting as the one owner Kathleen Bucci Bergeron has curated in East Dundee, you’re bound to be turned on by something. For some, it will be the intimacy of the space, where less than a dozen high-tops are packed so close you can’t help but lean toward your date’s lips—and what’s left of their cocktail—with romance on your mind. And for others, it’ll be the chic feel of the place, complete with subway tiles, a snow-white marble-topped bar, and whitewashed woods accented by powder blue tiles and brass fixtures that gleam and glow in the candlelight.
Bergeron, who caught the hospitality bug while working for Lettuce Entertain You before she switched to a career in the spa/salon business, has long wanted to open “a community gathering place” that offers great cocktails and an Italian-kissed cuisine close to home. During negotiations with the previous owners of the spot where Mockingbird now sits, her mind invariably drifted toward Venice, where small bars pair wine, beer, and tipples with tiny nibbles called cicchetti. “What I love about Venice is you can visit these little bars, have a great drink and just snack away all night long,” she says.
That’s precisely the nibble-and-sip format that makes up the bulk of Mockingbird’s menu, only many of its offerings come with a welcome twist: They’re often fired in my crush of the year: a Forno Bravo wood-fired oven.
Although there are cold small plates to choose from—try the smoked whitefish pâté, creamy as frosting, set with toast points or one of the house’s simple leafy salads, which are sourced from Nichols Farm in Marengo—Mockingbird’s wood-fired plates are the menu’s star attraction.
One of the great joys—especially for a man of my particular proclivities—is to watch chef Taylor Flannigan work his magic on the Forno Bravo. The menu at Mockingbird is rather compact with the number of cocktails running neck-in-neck with the food offerings, but savory offerings are undeniably rich and filling.
It’s meant to be a tactile experience, so don’t be afraid to eat with your hands. Mockingbird’s wood-fired cipollini onion hearts, for instance, come with oversized tufts of country bread. The onions themselves, caramelized until each bulb is as sweet as a bonbon, are delicious, but it’s the act of dipping the bread in the bubbly oil that tastes like an Italian play on a great French Onion soup.
We were also partial to the wood-fired chicken thighs, which are marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and oregano and served atop a sweet-spicy jumble of apples, carrots, jalepeños, and onions. Its flavor profile is unique—think spiced pepper jam, only with more crunch—buoyed by an extra ribbon of chimichurri spread across the top of the chicken. The pizzas are equally satisfying, especially a homemade sausage pie topped with kale and lemon zest. With pizzas like these—a play on neo-Neapolitan pies that have a more cake-like dough than those you’d find in the Old Country—Bergeron and her crew can lean on heftier flavors. The blend of lemon zest with the kale works on the same principle as an Italian arugula salad, brightening the bitter notes with citrus flavors and packing on a undercurrent of licorice from the fennel.
It’s a credit to Bergeron’s menu that we found ourselves ordering an extra round of cocktails as I fell more deeply under the spell of my wood-fired paramour. It was only when chef Flannigan, in a true MacGyver move, revealed that he’d built an outdoor wood-burning oven for his parents using an exercise ball, plaster, and some leftover kitchen tile that I called it a day. Proof that some love affairs are worth pursuing long after you’ve assumed they’re over.
Mockingbird Bar + Garden is located at 217 Barrington Avenue in East Dundee, 847-551-5614, mockingbirdbarandgarden.com.