Much like Dean Martin ballads and old Lou Costello flicks, I’ve got a soft spot, squishy as a warmed caramel, for Italian restaurants that don’t take themselves too seriously. Being fêted like a Medici is always a pleasure, especially if Piedmont truffles are somehow involved. But I come from simpler Italian stock, a family that simmered up pots of rosa marina soup and served fried artichoke hearts for Christmas—people who taught me that if you’re not laughing between bites, you’re not really eating at all.
So when I spotted a double-rum cocktail made with homemade “Tiki” bitters on the cocktail list at the new remodeled Baldinelli in Hinsdale I knew what I was ordering. When our server Tim Distasio, who helps his brother Vince run the place, delivered it in a giant blue porcelain Tiki goblet that looked like a relic from Trader Vic’s, I wasn’t the only one chuckling; the whole table was enchanted.
“We couldn’t resist,” Tim whispered with a grin.
One unpredictable sip in—slurped no less through a rubber straw—and I realized that my dear old Grandma Adele would have felt right at home here at Baldinelli. Not only because it’s a good old-fashioned family-run Italian joint, the kind of place where you can wear tomato stains like a badge of honor, but because nobody has any interest in pickpocketing you with $40 entrees that you could make at home for 8 bucks and some change. The kitchen’s goal is simple: Whip up the same good-tasting, low-cost fare that all the Distasios siblings—seven in all—used to enjoy every Sunday night back home.
Simple white plates. Large portions. Low prices. That’s the only restaurant calculus that the Distasios are scratching out every night. Luckily, there’s plenty of Sicilian soul lingering in the house’s fried arancini, which come stuffed with a melty mozzarella rice entombed in a perfectly crisped basil-flecked skin.
No one’s reinventing the trattoria here, but you’ll get what most people go to an Italian restaurant for. Think fried calamari and balsamic-dappled burrata with juicy tomatoes and grilled toast points. But you can also order Vesuvio-style chicken wings, which will compel you to ask why this isn’t a B-Dubs staple, as a thick paste of garlic, oregano, and white wine is great with just about anything that once clucked.
The Distasios recently invested in a complete HGTV-scale renovation to try to remind locals the restaurant is as a viable dinner option as well as good pizza spot. We approve of the look, which has a Restoration Hardware vibe to it: gray walls, black accents, and an ebony tin ceiling pressed with rococo swirls and geometric shapes. What makes it homey is the entreaty on the wall to “Ciao on This” and the clever art work, which pays tribute to the holy trinity of cute dogs, James Bond, and Dracula.
The base recipe for the kitchen’s pizzas are mostly a holdover from the previous owners but the Distasios upgraded the quality of their proteins. The thin-crust pies remind me of what you’d see on the South Side of Chicago. Thin but toothsome crust. A hint of sweetness in the sauce. And if our Four Pigs pie—sausage, peperoni, bacon, and ham—was any indication an avalanche of toppings.
The most impressive dish of our evening, however, was our pasta platter: a plate of bucatini and meatballs, which come dipped not smothered in a crushed-tomato red sauce that’s a glorious counterargument to the increasingly pallid California-style red broths that are regaining steam. Opting for thicker noodles ensures the pasta doesn’t sag under the weight of those chunky nightshades and the meatballs are undoubtedly a fluffy first-class joy.
Note the specials list, which are drawn with chalk on a sideboard, especially any mention of steak. Our “winter comfort” platter was an incredible deal for 13 bucks: a perfectly medium rare steak, complete with thinly sliced zucchini and a mound of pickled red onions. Follow it with a slice of airy tiramisu and a fun deconstructed cannoli where you scoop up the pistachio-dusted cream with a cookie flatbread and you’ll be more than stuffed.
Simple, classy, and satisfying. Come the holidays—when the snow is falling and the in-laws come calling—something tells us the that Distasios will have your back and leave you with enough change to help Santa make the rounds.
Baldinelli is located at 114 S. Washington Street in Hinsdale, 630-654-4600, baldinellipizza.com
Baldinelli’s cocktail list is by no means conventional (except if you like pairing your pastas with Old Fashioneds) but the drinks list makes full use of the bar’s many bottles and presents them with care and a wink of fun.
The Smuggler: A Tiki cocktail in a red sauce Italian joint? Just go with it. Is it a perfect pairing with pasta? Maybe not but the mix of spiked rum and coconut rum works about as well with the Vesuvio chicken wings as it would a Polynesian pu-pu platter.
Southsider: A perfect pairing with pizzas, thanks to a generous pour of Mossburn Scotch and a hint of peach liquor and blackberries. A noticeable amount of rosemary brings what could have been a sugar bomb back toward the savory side.