Restaurant Challenge: Coco Pazzo

One of the best things about living in Chicago is that, in any neighborhood, you can randomly happen upon an absolutely amazing spot that you never knew existed.  Such was the case on a recent Friday night when, exhausted after a long day of work, my fiancé and I stumbled upon Tuscan inspired Coco Pazzo in River North.

The first thing we noticed was the beautiful, transporting décor; the rich wood, exposed kitchen, and plentiful bottles of wine truly reminded us of a trip we took to Tuscany several years ago.  And although upon sitting down we realized the menu was not only expansive but expensive, there were enough reasonable items – both price-wise and health-wise – that there was no need to splurge.

First, a very informed and very Italian sommelier suggested a wonderful and not overly priced bottle of Super-Tuscan, a full-bodied red wine made by blending Bordeaux varietals from the Tuscan region.  Next we were brought a complimentary tomato and basil Panini, a nice touch, and also classic crusty Italian white bread, which we dipped into fruity olive oil.

Deciding what to order for dinner was a challenge.  Even with limiting ourselves to appetizer and pasta dishes in an effort to keep prices down, there was a large selection of healthy options: several whole-wheat pasta dishes, assorted seafood, and a delicious sounding minestrone soup.

On the advice of the waiter, I opted for the gnocchi neri.  I’m always a sucker for the potato pasta, and this dish, with its black squid ink, was certainly unique.  Black squid ink is not just an intriguing description.  Rather, it describes a process in which the ink is actually removed from the innards of the squid and incorporated into the dish.  To me, it doesn’t add much flavor, but the color it creates is intense: my gnocchi were jet ink black.  The gnocchi were served with lightly sautéed Pt Judith calamari, sweet artichokes (normally fried but I requested sautéed), and freshly shaved parmesan cheese.  Not a typical combination but unquestionably spectacular.

As a side, we ordered the perfectly caramelized Brussels sprouts with pancetta.  The Brussels sprouts were perhaps the largest I had ever seen, and the bits of sautéed pancetta added intense flavor notes to the dish.  We were way too full to order dessert, but our bill was accompanied by four complimentary bite-sized chocolate almond macaroons, proof that Coco’s desserts would have been just as good as the rest of the meal.

I’d rank Coco Pazzo as one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Chicago (the other top contender is Riccardo’s on Clark Street in Lincoln Park).  Coco also has a café in Streeterville that is supposedly less expensive and is “reminiscent of the casual cafés that line the central plazas of Florence.”  I do love those Florence cafés….

Try Coco Pazzo at 300 W. Hubbard St.

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