BY MEGAN BETZ
Tucked away an alley, in the middle of a lively East Kirkwood block, Osteria Rago is the epitome of the off-the-beaten-path, small-town Italian cafes that were its inspiration. Owners Gregg Rago and Susan Bright drew on Rago’s heritage to bring the intimate and familial Italian restaurant to Bloomington.
“Everyone in this [Italian] village we visited would see us walking around and they’d try to get us to come into their little houses and have some food,” Bright says of the time they spent in Italy connecting with Rago’s extended family.
With rustic design elements and art reflecting Bloomington’s local culture, Bright brings that kind of hospitality to the restaurant space. Small tables are well-suited for date night, where you begin with antipasti and salad, then end the evening with tiramisu and espresso.
For the main course, the Osteria Rago kitchen offers wood-fired pizza, with a crust and bake reflecting the pie’s Naples roots. Fresh-made pasta comes in two portion sizes, the smaller primi (first course) and larger secondi (second course).
You’ll find classics like chicken Parmigiana, but Osteria Rago innovations provide more fun and novelty. Take the popular eggplant rollatini—breaded eggplant rolled around a cheese filling and lined on freeform pasta.
Sandwiches are stacked with meats and cheeses highlighting the Americano style of Italian cuisine: Mediterranean flavor in American proportions.
For more Americano cuisine, stop by for Sunday brunch. The panino all’alba (two soft scrambled eggs and prosciutto di Parma served on Italian bread) and breakfast pizzas will leave you well-satisfied into the afternoon. If you live for a sweet breakfast, try the Italian stuffed toast: two large slices of egg-washed brioche sandwich a mascarpone cheese that avoids the cloying sweetness of the more traditional cream cheese-stuffed options found elsewhere.
Traditional osterie have regular menu changes that reflect the season and the ingredients available to the kitchen, and you can expect several menu changes each year at Osteria Rago. Best-sellers like the eggplant rollatini will stay, while new dishes showcase a growing emphasis on authenticity. To hit that mark, kitchen manager Ian Fletcher says they are trying to go a little bit simpler.
“Simplicity sounds easy if something has four or five ingredients in it, but it actually makes it more complex, because those ingredients have to be cut exactly right and cooked exactly right,” Fletcher says. “They have to be as fresh as possible.”
I hope this means more dishes like the pappardelle, dressed minimally in buttery cream sauce. My typical strategy when eating American Italian is to dig around the pasta to focus on the sauce and the extras. Here, while I thoroughly enjoyed the pappardelle’s accompanying calamari and sausage, I kept going back for the rich egg flavor and soft, smooth bite of the pasta.
Hours are Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. for lunch and dinner, and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for brunch. You can also find Osteria Rago pastas and sauces at the Bloomington Winter Farmers’ Market. Visit osteriarago.com for more information.