Review: Theo’s Italian

One of the latest Cunningham Restaurant Group concepts, Theo’s homes in on homey yet elegant Italian favorites
Photography by Tony Valainis

A CARDINAL RULE of restaurant criticism is not to say anything, good or bad, about the men’s room. But when the walls are papered in a whimsical woodland scene of bears tossing pepperoni pizzas and carrying takeout bags, a one-of-a-kind feature that seems like it would garner more mealtime conversation were it actually in the dining room, it’s worth mentioning. It’s one of the details at Theo’s Italian, one of the latest and more curious efforts of the ever-growing Cunningham Restaurant Group, that lets you know the place was named in honor of a 4-year-old—specifically, CEO Mike Cunningham’s first grandson, Theo.

CRG has expanded its culinary empire to three states and every corner of the Indy metro area, covering every flavor from new American and tapas to burgers and brunch, not to mention offering custom box lunches private dining spaces, and a members-only speakeasy, so the likelihood that local diners have experienced the care and attention Cunningham’s staff lend to plating and service is high. Indy’s west side has long embraced the group, with Stone Creek Dining Company, Bru Burger Bar, and the CRG Event Center all clustered within sight of The Shops at Perry Crossing, which now houses Theo’s. Indeed, last summer’s relocation of Stone Creek to the former Claddagh Irish Pub spot, which gave it more square footage and visibility, left a bonus space for Cunningham to let his imagination run wild. Why not open the kind of place you’d take your grandkids for pizza night and add dolled-up scratch-made pastas and cocktails that won’t leave the adults at the table wanting?

Photography by Tony Valainis

That’s exactly the feel at Theo’s, which opened early last October, whether you’re dropping in for a post-shopping nosh or driving out from the city. Its soaring two-story main atrium has a muted palette of earth tones, with just enough yellow and red accents and an open kitchen peeking in from the back to let you know its aspirations are beyond the local red sauce joint. Yet the menu dispenses with typical trattoria entrees such as osso buco or veal parmigiana. Despite this, executive chef Nova Richardson’s offerings lean a bit more toward parents’ tastes than fare for kiddies. A crisscrossed pile of perfectly chewy, parmesan-showered breadsticks with crunchy garlic chips is a must for young and old alike. And parmesan chicken pastina soup, a nod to the viral Italian American heal-all, packs plenty of comfort, though its broth is much thicker and lusher than usual, with shells instead of the traditional tiny tubes of pasta.

Photography by Tony Valainis

Whether you bring the family along or not, cocktails from the cozy bar will soothe with their savory touches, especially the Italian Bird made with rum, herbal Campari, sherry, and a drop of salted honey. Calamari, enlivened with somewhat more crowd-pleasing fried shrimp, wears a welcome crunchy crust and comes plated atop a generous swath of restrained Calabrian chili aioli. A Caesar salad with Brussels sprouts swapped for the romaine is a beauty on the plate, with a stripe of ultra-creamy dressing underneath. A healthy helping of fried pancetta may weigh on the salad a bit, and the sprouts could use a bit more time softening up in the dressing. Pastas are where the CRG touch shines the most, borrowing the custom-made tagliatelle and ziti from the same production kitchen as the more upscale Nesso. The casarecce is hearty and sophisticated, with a meaty pork and beef ragu and fresh touches of al dente Swiss chard and sweet shallots.

Photography by Tony Valainis

But you’re here for the pizza, right? Theo’s takes liberties with its pies as well, featuring the lesser-known but trending Roman-style pinsa flatbreads with an airier, more moist dough shaped into an oval that lends itself to less typical topping combinations. The kids may prefer it for its easier-to-manage square-cut slices, especially with just cheese or pepperoni. Be sure to order a second for the table, preferably the Fig Pig Goat, which has all the savory-sweet elements of a charcuterie board—prosciutto, goat cheese, and fig preserves—crowned with arugula, tangy pickled onions, and a drizzle of garlic-scented honey.

Photography by Tony Valainis

For desserts, tiramisu may be the obvious choice, and a slender rectangular slice is especially creamy, with a dusting of espresso that coffee lovers will appreciate. But the winner among the sweets is the Italian cream cake, a just-dense-enough double-decker treat studded with chewy coconut and pecans and filled with a sweet cream cheese filling. Cunningham has no immediate plans to franchise Theo’s—he has just the one grandson so far, after all. So you’ll need to plan a shopping trip to Plainfield if you want to try its updates to Italian classics. Just be sure to bring the kids.

THEO’S ITALIAN 2498 Perry Crossing Way, Plainfield 317-203-9107

HOURS Sun–Thu 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Fri–Sat 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

VIBE Family-friendly pizzeria

TASTING NOTES Scaled back elegant pastas, pinsas, and sandwiches 

NEIGHBORHOOD The Shops at Perry Crossing in Plainfield

MUST-ORDER Pillowy Roman-style pinsas with lush toppings, golden breaded calamari and shrimp, luxe lobster ravioli, and decadent Italian cream cake