Modern Italian

June 2023 View more

By Phil Vettel

VAI’s puts a contemporary spin on traditional cuisine

Inside VAI’s
VAI’s, 916 S. Rte. 59, Naperville

VAI’s calls itself an “Italian Inspired Kitchen + Bar,” a description that I found disquieting at first. Was the idea to warn people that the food wasn’t authentic?

The answer, as it turned out: No. But also yes, a little.

“We’re not traditional; we’re not old school,” explains operating partner Anthony Vai. “We put our own twists on dishes in the way we express our food.”

To wit: The spicy chicken tortellacci—a very good dish of chicken breast, tomatoes, Broccolini, garlic, and Parmesan cream—gets its assertive spiciness from roasted jalapeños, rather than, say, Calabrian chiles. Peppered shrimp—a standout appetizer that presents shrimp, peppers, and corn on a bed of soft polenta—derives its heat from Creole seasoning; conceptually, the dish is closer to New Orleans–style shrimp and grits than anything out of Sicily, but customers are unlikely to notice, and even less likely to complain. “We just have fun with it,” says Vai about these and other variations.

Clearly, the approach is working; The Naperville restaurant hits its fifth anniversary in July. And when I dined on a dreary Tuesday evening with heavy rain in the forecast, the place was packed—which, for a place with a seating capacity of 280, is saying something.

The interior is softly lit, done in brick and dark wood trim; seating includes freestanding wood tables and high-backed booths. There’s a large bar area with a couple of TVs, and the outside areas have propane heaters, gas fireplaces, and a roof-covered patio that can be enclosed and heated as needed.

Neapolitan pizza
Neapolitan pizza

Executive chef Scott Raiman oversees a massive menu of more than 50 items. Good choices include the arancini, fried rice-and-cheese balls over a rich tomato-based sauce and topped, curiously, with onion strings (“a little something extra,” Vai says). Pizzas, 12 inches in diameter, are Neapolitan style, though the crust is slightly thicker than a Neapolitan purist would prefer. There are some creative combos available, among them spicy sopressata with honey, and a “Chicago” with Italian sausage, pepperoni, and giardiniera. I can recommend the artichoke and roasted garlic pizza with Parmesan cream, which is delicious.

Pastas include the aforementioned chicken tortellacci and a hearty rigatoni with short rib meat, tossed with blistered tomatoes, arugula, and pecorino cheese; the slow-cooked meat is rich in flavor, and some chile flakes give the dish a stealthy hint of spice.

From left: Alaskan halibut over black-rice risotto and chicken pot pie
From left: Alaskan halibut over black-rice risotto and chicken pot pie

Among entrées, the Alaskan halibut is a standout, served over black-rice risotto in a pool of pesto butter sauce with charred corn, bacon, tomatoes, and peppers. The chicken pot pie is a comfort-food classic whose flaky pastry crust crowns the ceramic bowl like a chef’s toque. The pie is filled with breast meat, mushrooms, peas, peppers, carrots, and herbs in a sherry cream sauce, finished with a fragrant hint of truffle oil. “We cook the pot pie to order,” Vai says, “and the beauty of that is that there are very few changes we can’t accommodate. No peas in your pot pie? No problem.”

From left: White chocolate cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake
From left: White chocolate cheesecake and flourless chocolate cake

Most desserts are made in-house, including the gelato and sorbetto (flavors vary), white-chocolate raspberry cheesecake, and flourless chocolate cake. An exception is the tiramisu; Vai says a local baker’s version “is so good, why mess with it,” and he’s right, especially if you like your tiramisu tall and fluffy, with a generous whipped-mascarpone quotient.

Need to carryout for a crowd? VAI’s also offers family-style meal packages for curbside pickup.

Meal packages
Meal packages

Later this month, VAI’s owners will open Entourage, a new restaurant that will sit a few hundred feet north of VAI’s. Entourage will feature steaks, seafood, and a raw bar, but please, don’t call it a steakhouse. “We’re calling it ‘American Kitchen and Cocktails,’ ” Vai says. “We don’t want people to get ‘steakhouse’ in their heads. Yeah, we’re dry-aging steaks in house, but it’s our take on the concept, not just a steak on a plate. It’ll be more fun, more thought going into each dish. Mindfully created.”

The Entourage name has some family history behind it; it’s the same name used by Michael Vai, Anthony’s father, for the restaurant he opened in Schaumburg in 2005, which had a respectable four-and-a-half-year run. Fun fact: Steve Vai, the Grammy-winning guitarist whose solo career was dotted with stints playing with Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, and numerous other acts, is Michael’s brother. To Anthony Vai, he’s “Uncle Steve.”


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