Elkhorn's Holi Cannoli serves 'real deal' Italian food

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Joan Neeno, Special to the Gazette
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ELKHORN—I've always harbored a desire to be from a big Italian family—the kind that holds holiday dinners with big bowls of pasta that are passed around a long table packed with boisterous uncles, cousins and grandparents.

No doubt this Italian vision comes from movies such as “Big Night” and “Moonstruck” that I've seen over the years.

In my hometown, we had lefse and lutefisk feeds—not exactly the stuff of rosy reminiscences. You don't see movies with Cher sitting at a Nordic family dinner table eating whitefish soaked in lye.

So imagine my delight when I realized the secret to having that Italian-American experience is to go out to dinner with a real, honest-to-goodness Italian-American. And if she's from Chicago, hey, that's even better.

Lisa and Mitch joined us at Holi Cannoli, a place Mitch had heard about from a couple of friends. On a fairly nondescript stretch of Highway 12 outside Elkhorn, the restaurant doesn't look that impressive from the outside. Then you notice the parking lot is packed.

Holi Cannoli might be in Wisconsin, but the South Chicago accents of its owners and staff reveal that they hail from south of the border. The chef previously cooked at Rosebud, a Chicago institution. The food, Lisa says, is the real deal.

And it is great.

Our waiter, a gregarious and highly professional guy, was celebrating his birthday that night. He was funny and efficient—pacing the meal beautifully while still getting our orders in before two tables of 20-plus people ordered their meals.

We ordered the fried calamari ($10.95), which was good but not exceptional. The portion was really small for the price.

We also shared the appetizer specials, which were a better value. The bacon-wrapped scallops served on arugula with a citrus vinaigrette ($12.95) were outstanding. The scallops were beautifully cooked and wrapped in a layer of thick, salty bacon that was neither too soggy nor too crisp. The vinaigrette added a nice acidic balance to the plate. Four scallops. Four people. Perfect.

The next appetizer was an arugula salad with fresh figs, prosciutto and fresh mozzarella drizzled with balsamic ($10.95). It was big enough for the table to share. The sweetness of fig and balsamic, saltiness of cured meat and mildness of mozzarella were sophisticated complements to one another. It was beautifully executed.

Lisa, Mitch and I couldn't resist trying the cream of artichoke soup ($3.95), which was delicately creamy. It tasted of Parmesan, but the waiter assured us it was just cream. Really good cream, I might add.

For an entrée, Mitch ordered one of the specials—a bucatini-style pasta served with large, broiled shrimp, sautéed onions and fresh tomatoes in white wine sauce ($23.95). I hate to use the word “balance” again, but it fits every dish on the menu. No one flavor was overwhelming. The blend of ingredients was simply masterful.

Lisa ordered a side of rapini ($6.95), a seasonal green from the broccoli family that's a traditional Italian favorite. It was sautéed in quality olive oil and fresh garlic and sprinkled with pine nuts. Just amazing. The wilted greens were bold in taste and vibrant in hue.

The rapini would be a satisfying dinner in itself, but there were way too many other things to try.

My husband, Richard, ordered the puttanesca, a red sauce with black olives, capers, garlic, onions and a hint of anchovy, over ricotta-stuffed gnocchi ($11.95). The tomato sauce was bright and fresh. The olives, capers and anchovy provided a nice punch without tipping into salty. The gnocchi were fluffy pillows of creamy cheese that melted in the mouth.

Lisa chose the Chicken Marsala ($16.95), a traditional dish of chicken breast served with mushrooms and Marsala wine. Again, beautifully done. Sometimes Marsala sauce can be too thick and sweet. This was the right texture and sweet without becoming cloying.

I reverted to my Chef Boyardee roots and ordered linguini with meatballs and arrabbiata, a spicy red sauce ($11.95 plus $4.95 for meatballs).

I have had bad luck lately when ordering spicy food in Italian restaurants. Too often, I've had to take the lid off the shaker of red pepper flakes and dump them in. Holi Cannoli's arrabbiata was balanced. It had the right amount of heat to make the taste buds take notice, but it didn't eradicate the herbs and spices in the tomato sauce. Exceptional nuance and artistry.

For dessert, we split the Holi Cannoli dip ($9.95), which was a big martini glass heaped with marscapone filling and lined with shards of regular and chocolate-dipped cannoli for dipping. Delicious and perfect to share. The tiramisu ($6.95) was good, but a bit bland.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to try the coal-fired pizzas on crispy, wafer-thin crusts. We just didn't have the intestinal capacity.

Holi Cannoli is an offer you can't refuse. But make a reservation or you might not get past the bar.

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