Chef Giuseppe Scurato has made himself at home in Uptown.
by David Tamarkin

"Years ago, when chef Giuseppe Scurato left BOKA and landed at Burr Ridge's Topaz Café, I begged and coerced and guilt-tripped a friend until she finally drove me there. It was all about getting my hands on one of his steaks. Cooked on the pinker side of medium-rare and paired with some sort of luscious potato, they encapsulate everything I love about Scurato's food. Which is that it's very simple. And yet the flavors are just mammoth.

Obviously, when I started eating meals at Scurato's new restaurant, Ceres' Table (the first the chef has owned), I couldn't help but have beef on the brain. The flat iron steak tasted just as good as always. And yet eating it was palpably different than before. Where BOKA tipped upscale, and Topaz held court in a fancy strip mall (for post-shopping dining, I guess), Ceres' is as unassuming and quiet as a neighborhood joint can get. Here, Scurato's wife greets you at the door and handles the coat check. And that shy food runner who wordlessly puts the plates in front of you—that's Scurato himself. In this setting, the big flavors on the plate are loud in a different way: It's no longer the volume of trendy dining, but of a large family meal.

That familial feeling works precisely because of how uncomplicated—but highly flavorful—this food is. Baby octopus—tender, with nice charred edges—is simply cloaked in a fresh puttanesca. A chunky Tuscan bean soup is well executed and textbook, save a punchy pile of sun-dried tomato in its center. And soft gnocchi, one of Scurato's signatures, gets tossed in an addictive pesto and plated with rich shreds of rabbit.

Entrées are even bigger in flavor: The fantastic pork loin is wrapped in thick bacon and plated with chestnuts and apples for a smoky, nutty, caramelly effect. The perfectly cooked chicken has herbs rubbed under its skin and arrives with big disks of potatoes slathered in a provençal-herb-tomato sauce. And, of course, there's that steak, flanked by lemon potatoes and roasted tomatoes. These are familiar flavors for sure—Scurato obviously didn't invent the concept of pork with apples, or steak with potatoes. But because the place is completely void of pretense, a little unoriginality is easy to forgive.

Following dishes like these—and, for that matter, the fabulous dishes as well—Leticia Zenteno's desserts are a necessity. In her years with Scurato (she, too, was at BOKA and Topaz), Zenteno has developed a style of dessert that is both restrained and familiar, and right now she's hitting a stride. The homey banana-chocolate bread pudding is the most rustic option, and it's a good one. But I liked the way the carrot cake arrived with sweet, crunchy carrot shavings on top, and I loved the intensity of the creamy pistachio crème brûlée. Most of all, I liked the rice pudding, which arrived dotted with crisped rice, crunchy brittle and beautiful cherries. It was a five-dollar dessert that I would have paid ten for, and that, like a lot of the food here, I can't wait to pay for again.

Scurato's Secret
Ceres' Table isn't Italian–but some of it's best dishes are.

Giuseppe Scurato insists Ceres' Table isn't an Italian restaurant.

The menu of his month-old Uptown restaurant is inspired by his native Italy, his culinary background and, says Scurato, "things I like to eat."

If a label must be pinned, the "modern American" catchall fits best. Scurato has cooked in America for decades--notably as chef of Boka and Landmark--and Ceres's menu jumps from crab Louie to garlic-flecked bouillabaisse. But the dishes that exude the most personality are those linked to his motherland.

Like hearty strozzapreti pasta: Dense strings of house-made rolled pasta curl around a deliciously woodsy, rough-hewn boar ragù laced with wild mushrooms.

Tripe--when it makes an occasional appearance--shouldn't be missed. Recently, it came dressed in a style Scurato learned from his grandmother, which eschews the traditional tomato base for more subtle, stewy sauce of braising liquid, bread crumbs and Parmigiano-Reggiano. A new dish is in testing-mode; tender pieces of braised tripe coated with spices and polenta and deep-fried until crisp.

His ode to Italian rice is a dessert home run. Acquerello rice (special aged rice) appears two ways: sweetened and puréed into a sauce; and in a classic rice pudding stirred with crème fraîche and brandy-plumped dried cherries. The garnish, though, is pure Americana: clusters of Rice Krispies (yes, from the box) bound with dark caramel.

October 2009

This soon-to-open Uptown spot from chef Giuseppe Scurato (most recently of Topaz Cafe in Burr Ridge) stays true to its name—Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture—with an ever-changing menu of seasonal and locally focused fare. Scurato's contmporary American menu is informed by his time working with Wolfgang Puck in California and Michael Kornick (MK) here in Chicago, as well as his European training and Southern Italian roots. In addition to daily specials, look for dishes such as country-style pate; gnocchi with rabbit confit, arugula pesto and pecorino; and flat-iron steak with lemon-roasted potatoes and shallot fondue. Ceres' Table will be BYOB to start, with a liquor license expected in the first month or so.

America's 10 Best New Restaurants

Giuseppe Scurato (formerly of Topaz Café in Burr Ridge) set out on his own, opening this serene, blue-walled venture with his wife. From the moment you're seated at the rustic, hammered wood tables, the dedication shows. A first course of arancini, oozing with a mixture of Taleggio, artichoke and saffron risotto, is both honest and luxurious. Shaved artichoke and mushroom salad with Parmigiano-Reggiano and arugula in truffle vinaigrette is the epitome of spring. (Seasonality and use of local bounty is a big deal here.) Pasta dishes may range from goat cheese ravioli with rock shrimp, grape tomato, fava beans, leeks and basil to spaghetti alla chitarra. Even the flat-iron steak woos from its bed of lemon-roasted potatoes and grilled romaine. Desserts might include banana chocolate bread pudding with hot fudge and butterscotch sauce. Add craft cocktails and a well-matched, approachable wine list, and the result is nothing short of bliss.