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Restaurant Review

Fachini Gives Red-Sauce Italian a Glamorous Makeover

At Highland Park Village, Julian Barsotti takes you to a different era.
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Paying tribute: Carpaccio alla Harry, a velvety expanse of tenderloin, is a reference to the original at Harry’s Bar in Rome. Kevin Marple
On a weekend night in Highland Park Village, cars glide in and out, filling the tony shopping center with a crowd to match. A Lamborghini hums in valet between Mi Cocina and Jimmy Choo. Small groups gather under the lights of the movie theater’s marquee and in front of Perfect Union Pizza Co., the pizza joint co-owned by bold-face restaurateurs Nick Badovinus and Julian Barsotti.

Look beyond all this, and you’ll find a near-invisible door. Inside, up a flight of stairs, behind the old brick-and-stucco façade, is Barsotti’s more formal, consciously dramatic Fachini. This is his love letter to an Italian-American trope with its roots in another era. The narrative locks in before you’re halfway up the stairs. You’re going somewhere else, a different time, another place. Barsotti is taking you there.

Sauce money: Pastas, like perfectly al dente rigatoni alla vodka, fall under the heading “macaroni” on the menu.

The restaurant is the most personal project he’s done, with a name that comes from his paternal grandmother. He’d been a champion of regional Italian at Nonna and Sprezza, and of casual Italian-American at Carbone’s. For Fachini, he had a vision both more ambitious and riskier, inspired by the grande dames of midcentury continental dining, red-sauce palaces, and French-Creole kitchens where oysters Rockefeller were born in the French Quarter. Fachini’s dining room is a time capsule with dusky midnight-blue walls and waiters in tuxedos adeptly threading their way between tables.

The food is comforting in the way that classic Italian-American plates are comforting. But there are flavors that hail from New Orleans, from deep in Naples and Sicily. Most of all, there is a kitchen reveling in the sophistication that has always simmered beneath the surface. It delivers on a promise full of expectation.

The antipasti offered on the house resemble a deconstructed muffaletta. House-made ricotta with cracked pepper and a drizzle of olive oil; thinly shaved salumi; a spicy olive salad; garlic bread that’s everything you always hoped garlic bread could be. Oh, the luxury. Gilded with olive oil, pungent and unapologetic, and fired to order with mortared garlic, herbs, and red chile flakes—like something a grandmother would rub on crusty bread, but infinitely more urbane. I made a pastime of seeing my dining partners’ eyes widen at the first bite, with its onslaught of flavor. Now you are primed.

Order calamari, coated with rice flour and flash-fried, its crispiness a perfect match for a light, luscious aioli. The carpaccio is perhaps one of the best you’ll ever have, Wagyu tenderloin (from A Bar N Ranch) so soft and velvety you can lift it gently with a spoon. A baby beet and Gorgonzola salad is playful and smart, the cheese a smooth, almost bluish cream under perfectly ripe avocado slices, and a play on Italian vinaigrette—drops nestled in the iceberg wedges—evoking exactly the flavor wink you’d expect. (If you smile at this, you’re not the only one.) The Caesar is a tableside show that involves a snow of Parmesan and Sicilian salt-packed anchovies.

Suave servers are of the sort who will lay down a napkin where strands of pasta have disentangled themselves and formed ruby blotches on the tablecloth, so you can move on, unsullied. One tells us the story of the cufflinks he wears, which were his grandfather’s. The staff is part of the illusion, masters of atmosphere.

What is not canonical, but should be, is the delightfully crunchy fried angel-hair cacciatore, reminiscent of the crispy noodle nests that are part of the repertoire of Asian cuisines. A jumble of noodles becomes a shaggy crêpe, flipped out of the pan and topped with morsels of braised, pancetta-wrapped quail. Shiitake mushrooms pick up the meatiness of smoked prosciutto in the smoky sauce. It’s a smart dish, given a lick of elegance and a spin.

One late evening, someone in our party was running behind, and so we stalled over cocktails that lean the way of Negronis, Black Manhattans, spritzes, and Champagne cocktails, and then fell into the menu’s extravagance. The kitchen is at its best when it pulls out the stops, reveling in a refined hedonism that’s all about skillfully layered flavor.

Parmigiana with house-made mozzarella comes dramatically presented with the bone.

The lobster fra Diavolo is extraordinary, its presentation a tiny sculpture. The shell’s cavity is stuffed with house-made spaghettini, a mound like a lavish hairdo piled into the shell, morsels of knuckle and claw meat triumphantly crowning the top. The essence of lobster permeates the spicy, tomato-rich sauce with its deep, sweet luxury. It’s this detail that makes it even better than it has to be.

The veal Parmigiana is similar: an exquisite loin chop pounded so thin I almost wished for more purchase on the flavor. The breading, a well-seasoned, Milanese-style crust, is crisp as buttered toast, a soft, buttery tomato sauce layered on like a volcanic eruption, with craters of house-made mozzarella and cream that covered the expanse that stretched to nearly obscure the plate. The bone, cooked sous vide and then flash-fried, is presented dramatically alongside. At Carbone in New York—an equally upscale and retro neo-Italian-American restaurant—they, too, present the veal Parmesan with the bone. I defy anyone to claim that its crust is as crisp.

If you order wrong, elements can bring a meal down. A repetition of the assertive red sauce. A saturation of Barsotti’s signature red chile flakes or of salt that can create a shield to flavor. This was true in the 100-layer lasagna, a structural feat I only found edible cold the next day. Doughy envelopes weighed down the toasted lobster ravioli that reminded me of the flavors of au gratin crab meat. But a slice of mousse-y cheesecake and glass of Nonino grappa smooth over the flaws.

At the end of one evening, Barsotti came out of the kitchen and joined my party (I’d made the reservation under an assumed name, as I always do, but I’ve met him many times, and it was impossible to go unrecognized). He wanted us to see the not-quite-finished balcony that will serve as a patio. Under the full moon and the theater’s spire, the conversation meandered to New Orleans cemeteries, Calabrian werewolf tales, and Barsotti’s family in New Jersey. He would like to do Friday lunches at Fachini. Possibly with a formal-jacket dress code. “And martinis,” I add dreamily, recalling the ones I’ve had at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. I notice that the façade across the way is now reminding me of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. And I realize the narrative is working.

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