Hidden in Plain Sight is a new series in which we take a new look at an established restaurant. In our lust for newness and our obsession with "bests," the fantastic unsung places that make up the bulk of our city's dining sometimes get overlooked. Here we aim to acknowledge, examine and (often) celebrate those places.
In preparation for last week's review of Little Beast, I did a fair amount of eating around Eagle Rock and Highland Park in order to get the lay of the land, dining-wise. One of those meals keeps coming back to me: the vibrant pastas and creative vegetables at Maximiliano.
Andre Guerrero, who gave Eagle Rock the Oinkster and is also co-owner of downtown's fantastic Belgian beer bar, Little Bear, opened Maximiliano in Highland Park in October of 2011, and since then it's been quietly serving pasta and pizza in its high-ceilinged wedge of a room with red and white walls meant to evoke spaghetti-and-sauce as modern art.
The valet stand might seem a little out of place here, but you're unlikely to need it anyway. This is a neighborhood spot, albeit a fairly sleek one. And it provides something that every neighborhood needs: a great option for a cheap and delicious bowl of pasta.
Maximiliano serves a fantastic puttanesca, pungent with Kalamata olives, capers and anchovies (you can leave out the anchovies and actually get a version that's still quite tasty, though the funk of the fish gives it an extra allure). Guerrero is not a staunch traditionalist by any stretch, and he likes to add jalapeño to his pasta sauces. If chomping down on them is too much for you, they're easy to avoid, but they add an extra layer of flavor and a kick of heat that plays like the eccentric cousin of the red chili flakes usually found in Italian cooking.
There's jalapeño in the orecchietti sauce as well, along with fennel sausage, kale, and enough heirloom cherry tomatoes to give the dish a sweet red-sauce base. Neighborhood pasta joints often struggle with imbuing their dishes with the layers of flavor that makes them worth going out and paying for, but here they're complex and comforting.
There is pizza as well, with fun toppings like ricotta, preserved lemon and wild arugula. They're cooked in a red-tiled Marsal pizza oven that anchors the back of the room. The crust is super thin, and the flavors are good, but this isn't pizza I'd drive out of my way to eat.
Vegetables are great though -- roast fennel with sauteed shallots, bacon and Gruyere cheese, or cauliflower with cider vinegar and pistachio pesto. And I would drive out of my way for Maximiliano's beer selection, which featured craft brews on tap and in the bottle, and is way geekier than you might expect to find at a pizza joint. The wine list is funky and affordable as well, obviously picked to pair with the food rather than going the much easier route of what's easy to sell.
A meal for three with wine, beer and sides came in at well under $100, a welcome change from other neighborhood spots I've visited of late. Maximiliano is one of those restaurants that could easily become a staple -- pasta that's better than you'd make at home and only fractionally more expensive.