Phil Vettel reviews Osteria Trulli

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. --

"We don't need to talk about the food," said Giovanni DeNegris, kidding only a little. "I am who I am with the food."

This is certainly true. Throughout his career, the chef's culinary focus has been unwavering. His is the cucina povera (cooking of the poor) of his native Puglia, the stiletto heel in Italy's boot.

His rustic style served him successfully for eight years at Trattoria Trullo in Lincoln Square, and Macello in the Market District. A lease dispute forced him out of the former, and he sold the latter, announcing his retirement last year.

But, as DeNegris said, "I got bored." He started scouting locations and, less than nine months into his "retirement," he and partner Salvatore Perricone opened Osteria Trulli in an Arlington Heights strip mall, in a tiny 50-seater formerly known as Bapi.

(A trullo, by the way, is the name given to the cone-roofed limestone buildings, some centuries old, that are unique to the Puglia region and something of a tourist draw.)

The new restaurant is a cute place, a cheerfully rustic interior with a make-believe door by the dining tables, a couple of antique chandeliers and a faux window mounted high on the open-to-the-rafters wall. Hard surfaces everywhere ensure a noisy experience.

A pass-through allows diners to glimpse the wood-burning oven that's responsible for much of the kitchen's output, including the marvelous blistered-crust thin pizzas. The Trulli pizza is bold and briny, topped with capers, anchovies and Gaeta olives; the burrata pizza is crowned with a huge ball of burrata cheese (burrata is one of Puglia's gifts to the world) and curls of mortadella principe (the finest mortadella I've ever had) over baby arugula and cherry tomatoes. I'd come here for the pizza alone.

Two other dishes you should try are the zampina barese and the tiella barese. The former, which fans of DeNegris' past restaurants will recognize, consists of four long links of house-made Pugliese sausage over fava-bean puree and cooked chicory, and it's loaded with homespun flavor. The latter is an acquired taste. Expect a combination of rice, potato and mussels layered into a clay pot and slow-cooked in the wood oven, arriving at the table with a bubbling-hot crust of olive oil and breadcrumbs. It's listed under the menu's "risotto" subheading, for lack of a better category, but it really is a dish unto itself.

Risotti, by the way, are fail-safe choices. There's a very good version with fava beans, pureed truffle and ricotta salata, and a terrific shrimp and lobster risotto that shows up on the specials card from time to time.

Huge Adriatic prawns are grilled to a charred-shell finish and served, split, with tagliolini tossed with oil and anchovies for my favorite dish on the menu, though I'll also pay my respects to veal trulli, a veal chop served on the bone with Italian sausage, roasted potato and a white wine sauce with capers and mushrooms. You can't go wrong with the whole fish (DeNegris doesn't do fillets), particularly the salt-crusted orata (bream), deboned tableside and accompanied by lemon, olive oil, garlic and oregano.

Desserts are simple and good, and contain DeNegris faves that I remember from his other places, notably the croccantino (walnut semifreddo encased in chopped walnuts) and his mascarpone-rich tiramisu. There's a special dessert of flaky pastry stuffed with amarena whipped cream and fior de latte gelato. Also: overstuffed mini-cannoli shells with vanilla gelato and amaretto-caramel sauce; and small panzerottini, like mini-beignets, filled with sweetened ricotta, chocolate, cinnamon, anisette and raisins, alongside vanilla (or, on our visit, berry) gelato

If you're lucky, DeNegris will send out a few sips of his house-made limoncello along with dessert. He doesn't do it every night (I was lucky one time, not so lucky the second visit), but when he does, be sure to lift your glass and raise a toast to unsuccessful retirement.