Marcello Cancelli wants to make it clear that Pensiero Ristorante is not cursed. That the media picture of its kitchen as having a revolving door is not how the last year has felt to him as its general manager since April. “We had one chef who came from Bistro Bordeaux and an Italian restaurant, it was not a good fit, we saw that in the first week,” he says. “But the next chef, Joe Wojciechowski, who came from Michael, was here for 10 months.” Compared to Cancelli’s own nine-year stint as general manager of Carlos, among other things, that’s still not that long. But a bit media-wary as he is by now, he’s still willing to put himself out there to sell the idea that Pensiero— a year-and-a-half-old reboot of a 30-year-old Italian staple on the Evanston scene— has finally arrived at the point that six chefs and no shortage of public turmoil were leading to. He’s confident about his new chef, Wilson Bauer, a veteran of Longman & Eagle and other kitchens around town. He feels he understands how to make it in the mercurial Evanston market (close to the city yet suburban-conservative, budget-conscious, tied to Northwestern’s residency cycles). Most of all, we learned as we sat down to speak with Cancelli and Bauer, he wants us to know that “We are a professional restaurant. We are here to succeed and to grow.”
Wilson Bauer, the new chef, came to Chicago about two years ago at the urging of a former colleague from Seattle, Jared Wentworth, and helped him open Longman & Eagle. He had some subsequent short stints around town at places such as Tribute (where he worked with his Pensiero predecessor, Brandon Baltzley), the even more star-crossed The Black Sheep, and The Bedford before starting at Pensiero two weeks ago.
Bauer is friends with Baltzley and avoids commenting on his predecessor’s tenure in the kitchen, but as Cancelli talks about what he calls “the Brandon Baltzley experience” (making it sound like a band) and certain chefs trying to feed Evanstonians their vision heedless of cost, Bauer is laconically down to earth about the necessity of working within his numbers and nudging his audience along. He points out that a rabbit and foie gras ravioli’s relative failure the preceding Sunday means he’s unlikely to serve either again right away, but notes that whole-animal cuts like short ribs have done very well with his audience— and make the restaurant money.
We asked Bauer how a chef like him wound up in a fairly traditional Italian restaurant:
Wilson Bauer: I think I have an Italian frame of reference. I like to cook local foods using Italian methods. I don’t conceptualize it in an Italian way, I’ve never worked in an Italian restaurant, but that’s where it always seems to end up. It just kind of happens.
I like making breads, I was just in there making sourdough. I think I have an affinity for pasta— we make all different kinds. I make a different dough for ravioli, a different dough for noodles. I always appreciate the simplicity of using good quality ingredients. It’s hard this time of year because if I hadn’t just started two weeks ago I would have pickled ramps, I would have pickled some of those great peaches we had this year. So we just have to get through till we can start that in the spring. Right now, we’re just about getting through all these parties we have for Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Marcello Cancelli: We want to do Italian food, but in a modern way, with modern techniques.
But that was what the last chef set out to do and it didn’t seem to fly with your audience.
Cancelli: You have to keep to your budget, you cannot blow past it saying I want to make my food, they will eat my food. We went 90 degrees from what we were, a lot of gels, plating that nobody understood. It was too extreme a departure from what had kept this restaurant going for generations.
Bauer: A lot of my background is in hydrocolloids [substances used in molecular gastronomy] and I would like to do some of that, but we just can’t spend the labor on it right now. Well, we do a little of it— we have a sturgeon dish where we open the sturgeon up, put prosciutto in it, then use “meat glue” to put it back together. So when you slice it you get this perfect fish with a prosciutto center. But with all the parties and stuff we have through the end of the year, we just can’t do it. I mean, I could do it, I’m young and I work hard, at least I will till my back gives out and then I’ll go teach [laughs]. But we need to focus on building an audience right now.
I’ve changed most of the menu already. But it needs to be refined. I want to make more things in house. I want to make cheese, fresh ricotta, maybe some things like washed-rind feta. I’d like to start doing charcuterie— we’ve got a sweet basement for that, we need to work on doing it legally.
I’m going to garden on the roof. Coming from Seattle, you know, it’s not legal for restaurants to not compost in Seattle. But I understand, in Chicago in winter, stuff would just pile up into a gross, smelly heap. But we have some heater vents that come right out on the roof, so we could build compost piles next to them and hopefully keep the worms alive through the winter. And then we use the compost on our gardens. And eventually I can quit my job as chef, and just be the gardener.
Cancelli: I completely believe that this is the man who can take us where we want to go. We don’t just want to go along. We are a professional restaurant, we are here to succeed, to grow. I hear all the time, “Pensiero, oh, I thought that you closed.” I want us to be a restaurant that I would like to eat at.
There is such a perception in the media that we’re terrible people. That we’re slave drivers.
Bauer: Here’s how slave driving it is. This is the first restaurant I’ve worked at that pays its people hourly, and pays overtime.
I want this to work. I have to keep this job. I worked too many places lately for, like, a month. I want this job to last.
Well, everybody in the restaurant biz has a job for a month somewhere on their resume.
Bauer: Good. Can you tell my girlfriend that?