Downtown Champaign’s newest restaurant is Nando Milano Trattoria. This is the second location for the restaurant — the first is in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood — and currently the only exclusively Italian fine dining establishment in Downtown Champaign.

The restaurant is lovely. The remodel and build out of the space was very well done, and the cozy warm woods and neutral colors are matched with a handful of industrial elements. The restaurant’s entrance leads you right into the bar area, which is on the smaller side, but attractive. In the main dining room, there are no fewer than four tables with prime window views of Neil Street. The open space and sleek, understated bench seating makes the restaurant feel contemporary, but not uncomfortable.

The menu focuses mainly on Northern Italian cuisine, but there are some Southern Italian dishes as well. Antipasti, or appetizers, range in price from $11 to $22; antipasti specials on the night I was there were $12 to $16. Salads — there are five — are $9 to $16. There are only four sides, $6-$7. Pasta is made in-house, and there are eight pasta dishes, ranging in price from $16 (rigatoni alla beppe; pasta with sausage and peas in a creamy tomato sauce), to $24 (linguine portofino; pasta with seafood in a white wine sauce). Of the other dishes, three are $18, two are $19, and the crab and lobster ravioli dish is $24. There are three vegetarian pasta dishes: cavatelli alla norma ($18; pasta with eggplant), and both gnocchi dishes ($18 each). Secondi piatti — meat and seafood entrées — number five, and range in price from $22 to $32.

On my most recent visit, the special Christmas menu featured eight entrées. The most affordable dish was strozzapreti (a long-ish pasta shape) served with a pork ragout for $19. Each of the other entrées (most of which featured seafood) ranged in price from $30 to $50.

My party of four ordered three items to start: tris di arancini di riso (stuffed saffron rice balls, $12); caprese alla nando (burrata mozzarella with basil and tomatoes, $16); porchetta e scamorza (on special, $14).

The rice balls were pretty good, and half of our table thought they were the best of the three antipasti. Crispy on the outside and creamy in the middle, each was stuffed with something different, but all three contained cheese. The tomato sauce served on the side was fine, but nothing particularly special. The arancini are probably best shared by two; trying to divvy up each ball into a fraction other than half was difficult.

The caprese all nando was served with burrata — fresh mozzarella filled with creamy mozzarella. Burrata is one item on my last meal list (you know, the meal you’d eat if it was your last ever) and I was very pleasantly surprised to find this burrata to be quite excellent. It was fresh and creamy and totally delicious. Good burrata is the star of any dish it’s in, but we ordered a caprese salad, not a burrata salad (although I’d most definitely order that), and you can’t just forget the tomatoes and basil that go with the cheese. The menu description reads as follows: fresh burrata mozzarella with basil and tomatoes, arugula, and radish topped with extra virgin olive oil, garnished with balsamic vinaigrette. The burrata sat on a tiny bed of arugula, but there was no basil. Likewise, there was no radish. And finally, the singular tomato that was cut into wedges and placed around the burrata was terrible. I’d go as far as to say inedible. It was a hard, unripe, totally tasteless grocery store tomato. 

The porchetta e scamorza (seasoned pork roast with carrots and peas and a rosemary glaze) special appetizer was, by far, the least beautiful of the three antipasti. The porchetta was buried under a sheath of scamorza cheese and surrounded by carrots and peas. The pork was tasty, but the carrots were severely undercooked; they ate like they were raw. The rosemary glaze lent an earthiness to the dish, but because the vegetables weren’t prepared well, the flavors and textures just didn’t come together for me. This was my least favorite of the three starters.

For entrées, we ordered milanesine di vitello ($24), soltimbocca di maiale ($24), strozzapreti al ragout di maiale ($19), and gnocchi della nonna ($18).

On the menu, the milanesine di vitello was described as “traditional milanese style veal served with cherry tomatoes and arugula,” but when I ordered it, I was informed that it did not, in fact, come with cherry tomatoes and arugula. There was no side with the meal, so if I wanted a side, I could order one ($6-$7). Why, then, was the incorrect information on the menu? Clearly there was arugula in the kitchen, as it was the bed for the caprese salad. We all found this strange, especially because we also ordered the soltimbocca, another meat entrée at the same price, that came with roasted potatoes and caramelized onions.

The veal was breaded and covered with speck (a cured meat, similar to bacon), mushroom sauce, and scamorza cheese. It didn’t look all that great, but it tasted pretty good. The sauce and the speck made it quite salty. The veal was thickly cut, but not particularly tender. It was a sizeable portion of meat, but a singular piece of meat on a plate didn’t seem to justify the $24 price tag.

The soltimbocca di maiale (pork loin with speck and sage topped with fontina and scamorza cheese served with Yukon gold potatoes and caramelized onions) was the worst of the entrées we sampled. The sauce was salty, and even the mild creaminess of the cheeses and meatiness of the pork couldn’t cut through the saltiness of it all. The potatoes were not cut evenly, which meant they did not cook evenly, and most were burnt. The onions were also burnt and not caramelized.

The strozzapreti al ragout di maiale special ($19; a longer cut pasta in a pork and tomato sauce) looked nice. The pasta was cooked to al dente. The pork ragout was good, though salty, and the sauce was a little thin. All in all, it was a solid dish, but nothing exceptional.

The real star of the entrée round was the gnocchi della nonna (gnocchi stuffed with gorgonzola cheese, served in a creamy tomato sauce). The gnocchi were perfectly soft and pillowy and gently stuffed with gorgonzola cheese. They were tender little packages of cheesy goodness. It was clear that whoever made the gnocchi did so joyously, with a deft hand. It was delicious.

The dessert menu contained six items, ranging in price from $7 to $10, with half of the items at $10. We ordered the tiramisu ($8), the cannoli ($7), and the almond semifreddo ($10). The tiramisu looked lovely, but was mostly piped cream. There wasn’t much in the way of ladyfingers, and the espresso flavor was lacking, and the dessert did not live up to its name as a pick me up. The cannoli was a bit of a misnomer: cannoli is plural, so really, the menu should have read cannolo. The single cannolo that arrived to our table was dressed up quite well. The filling was really nice — the cheesiness of the ricotta was present, and the pistachios on each end added a nice nutty crunch. But one cannolo for $7? That was hard to swallow. The semifreddo was the best, as it was creamy and delicious, and with the almond and brittle within the frozen dessert, it touched on all the textures and flavors one may desire at the end of her meal.

The wine list is extensive, and like the rest of the menu, fairly expensive. At $9 and up per glass, you might be better off ordering a bottle. Bottles are $32 and up, so choose carefully, and when asking your server for a recommendation, be sure to double check that price point.

In the end, our bill (before gratuity) came to $178 for four people.

After dining at Nando’s, I couldn’t help but wonder about the longevity of the restaurant. Does it have staying power? The prices are very high, and I think that will ultimately make or break the restaurant’s success. Nando is fighting forces over which it has no control: the median income in the area, the academic seasonal flux of people. Additionally, many people don’t want to pay fine dining prices for Italian cuisine. I’m sure many wonder why spending $19 for one dish is better spending $9.99 for a never ending pasta dish at Olive Garden. Is the average person going to choose Nando Milano over Biaggi’s, when Biaggi’s offers a Bolognese pasta dish for $14 instead of Nando’s $19? They’re not the same things, obviously, and I fully believe that excellent Italian food and handmade pastas are worthy of fine dining prices. But if many people aren’t willing or able to regularly spend $40 to $60 per person on dinner, where does that leave Nando Milano? Will it become the once or twice a year special occasion restaurant for most? Is that sustainable? In a sea of high priced Downtown dining, what makes Nando more appealing than bacaro, Miga, V. Picasso, Big Grove, or Radio Maria? And vice versa?

After looking at the Wicker Park location's website and Facebook pages, I found it curious that the Champaign location's prices were more expensive. Maybe the Wicker Park menu hasn’t been updated; there’s a discrepancy between the website menu prices and the Facebook page menu prices on a handful of items. The Champaign prices are posted on the Champaign location's Facebook page

 

 Wicker Park              

 Champaign

 Calamari Fritti                                                

 $14  

 $15

 Carpaccio di Manzo

 $14

 $16

 Delizia Tricolore 

 $10

 $11

 Fettuccine Bolognese 

 $16/$18 website

 $19

 Maltagliani/Pappardelle  San Marco

 $16/$18 website

 $19

 Costine di agnello alla doppia cottura 

 $26

 $32

 Baccala’ alla Livornese

 $20 

 $22

So what’s the consensus, then? My experience at Nando Milano was hot and cold: some dishes were great, some were not. I’ve heard the same from friends; some have had fantastic meals and experiences, others have had mediocre ones. The restaurant is still figuring it out — it's only been open since November 30th. You should most definitely have a meal there and see for yourself. Be sure to order the gnocchi. I know I’m going back to have those again.

Nando Milano is open Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m., and Sunday, 4-9 p.m. You can make a reservation on the Champaign location’s Facebook page

All photos by Jessica Hammie.