From the Hearth

March 2021 View more

A spread including grilled baby gem salad, scallops, and lavraki

As culinary curve balls in early 2021 go, a new hearth-fired Greek concept from the venerable Francesca’s Restaurant Group isn’t really as much of a leap as it might first appear.

While one might have expected something more in the company’s predominantly Italian wheelhouse, like current Naperville outposts La Sorella di Francesca or Francesca’s Passaggio, a Grecian departure from that formula represents, geographically speaking, just a quick jaunt across the Mediterranean Sea. It’s certainly less of a global leap than its nearby
taco-and-tequila joint Fat Rosie’s, another Francesca’s offshoot. And,
as it turns out, the trip to Greece makes perfect sense given the marriages of the folks behind Vasili’s (135 Water St., Naperville, 630.328.0431,, which takes its name from Francesca’s chef/owner Scott Harris’s father-in-law, Papou Vasili (“papou” is Greek for “grandfather”), and its culinary approach from executive chef/partner Jaysen Euler, who married into a Greek family.

Vasili’s chips

Hearth and Soul
Despite that sepia-toned inspiration, however, Euler didn’t feel hidebound to tradition in conjuring his vision of Greece along the DuPage. While there is indeed plenty of familiar fare to be found on the menu, those classic recipes often serve simply as springboards to something new.

“I like to think of it as refined rusticity,” he says. “We’re taking some of these Old-World Mediterranean recipes and presenting them in a way that is elevated but approachable. We want customers to feel like they’re walking into a comfortable little seaside restaurant in Greece.”

That feeling is imbued by a massive wood-fired hearth that anchors the space, with nearly every seat in the sleekly designed dining room sharing at least a partial view of the flames. And as winter cedes to spring in the coming weeks and months, guests will have the option of forgoing that view for the warm breezes and lively crowds on the outdoor patio. But wherever they choose to enjoy their meal, chances are that whatever they choose for that meal will serve as a reminder of the hearth, with much of the menu being touched by its oak-inspired heat.

Chocolate olive oil cake

Mediterranean Mindset
The balance between tradition and innovation at Vasili’s is on display from the outset on the appetizer slate, where old-school favorites like saganaki (flaming cheese—have your best “opa!” at the ready) and Euler’s recommended loukaniko (Greek sausage) share space with roasted bone marrow and wood-fired oysters. Openers also include a selection of shareable spreads—including melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant and garlic) and taramosalata (whipped fish roe with thyme and smoked paprika)—to enjoy with crusty grilled sourdough. We opted for a flaky, spinach-packed version of classic spanakopita and a basket of the can’t-stop-eating-them Vasili’s chips, lightly fried slices of eggplant and zucchini with a side of tried-and-true tzatziki.

Chef Jaysen Euler and GM Kevin Roskoskey

Of course, tzatziki is probably best known in America as the condiment of choice for that pita-clad staple of the strip mall hot dog joint, the humble gyro. And while that very ubiquity might cause other diners to belt out a modified Tina Turner riff (“We Don’t Need Another Gyro”) and move on to options with a little more ambition, I was interested in what a place like Vasili’s could do with one of the standards of the genre. This version plays it straight down the middle, with slices of fresh tomato, cucumber, and onion complementing the tender lamb-and-beef combo—well played all around.
Both the skewers (beef, lamb, chicken, or pork) and the seafood slate (from bass to scallops to octopus) offer plenty of ways to sample from the hearth (as did the expansive mixed grill), but we opted for another inspired nod to tradition, Yiayia Penny’s pastitsio—a rich mélange of baked pasta, meat sauce, and kefalograviera cheese that could warm up the coldest of winter nights. We put a period on the meal (or in this case, an exclamation point) with the banana cream Napoleon, an elegant take on banana pudding with a kicker of salted caramel to finish things off.

And we were nary a bit disappointed that Francesca’s didn’t come through with another lasagna or eggplant Parmesan with their latest foray into Naperville. The trip to another port in the Mediterranean proved to be yet another voyage worth taking with this crew—and a most welcome curve ball to help kick off 2021.