I’ve struggled with this very question for at least the past year. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and was lucky enough to dine out in Chicago as a kid. I remember the Italian restaurants of my youth like Giannotti’s , Rosebud on Taylor, and other neighborhood joints that were just as good as the Sunday dinners at my grandparents. Even the Melrose Feast was a blast, seeing “cousins” for many years at various food stands or out playing the carnival games.
My grandmother was a baker and specialized in Christmas cookies. What some groups do now for a cookie party, she would do alone for days! I’m lucky enough to be getting the cannoli rollers and the Easter lamb cake mold in the future. My grandfather made “gravy.” His gravy had meatballs with raisins (being the only grandson I got meatballs without raisins), Italian sausage, pork neck bones and the goodness of San Marzano tomatoes bubbling away all day with other typical ingredients. I’ve rarely come close to the flavor of that gravy and when I do I go quiet, pausing to deal with the flood of memories. He only used rigatoni pasta. When my mother bought farfalle for the first time, I was about 15 and reacted with “What is this weird pasta?” I’d only known – rigatoni, spaghetti, gnocchi and elbow macaroni. The only seafood we saw as a kid was Christmas Eve for the Feast of the Seven Fishes and Lenten Fridays.
Italian food for me is very personal and the most frustrating when I go out to eat. I rarely go out for Italian because I’d rather spend the day making it myself. I was lucky enough to work at Fortunato long ago. I worked garde manager and also made the fresh pastas for about a year. Orecchiette, penne rigate, anolini, tagliatelle, pappardelle, farfalle, tortellini, ricotta gnocchi and the bane of my existence a pyramid shaped pasta, the name escapes me but it looked like manti. All of these I did by hand and I loved every minute of it.
This is where I come from, and I know this is not the norm for most people. But, I expect a lot more from Italian restaurants and dismiss them much easier because of the food. I think this is true of anyone who grew up with good food in a strong, ethnic household. Menu’s back in the day were simpler and didn’t have pizza on the menu and lord knows I never saw crudo! When did Northern Italian cuisine start doing sushi?
But what is Chicago Italian today….
Chicago has places that have been around FOREVER – Rosebud, Tuscany, Sabatinos, Tufano’s, La Scarola, The Italian Village, Club Lago and the places on South Oakley! Their clientele honestly may die before these restaurants close, but sadly most of these places have become tired. If you go for the “old school,” I suggest asking about and getting their house specialties. These are the best bets for a good dinner. The décor, staff and menus for many are like walking in to a time machine from 30 years ago. Most are still family run. I hate to say like my grandfather’s gravy I know I can’t make it like he once did.
The Newer Italian
This year the restaurant trend seems to be Italian whether it’s a new restaurant opening, or re-concept. The buzz word and running joke lately around Chicago is “Italian joint.” I’m going to break the new spots down by how I see them for me personally.
Azzurra – The same owners of Anteprima and Bar Ombra. I’ve not been to Bar Ohmbra and the one time I went to Anteprima I had such an awful experience I vowed never to return. With Azzurra opening close to me, I had high hopes. But after two visits with different friends, neither wanting to go back, I also won’t be returning. Some friends I’ve spoken to do like it but the menu is MASSIVE. Perhaps pairing the menu down would allow for more focus but the food mistakes for me were glaring in their poor preparation.
Nico Osteria – This is a restaurant I can’t sneak in to because of my restaurant past and friendships. While I like the first half of the savory menu very much, the items beyond the pastas I think are a bit all over the place and not worth ordering. The restaurant isn’t cheap but what restaurants are in the Gold Coast. I would load up on the first half and definitely save room for dessert, especially the Nico Torte.
Cicchetti – This is the one new restaurant I don’t get. It seems no written review can say anything critical yet in my three experiences here I kept getting more and more confused and angry with how miserable the food was. The only good dish wasn’t even Italian in style! Some have praised the polenta with squid – all I can think is “It’s all soft. This dish has no texture.” I challenged a positive reviewer to eat this very dish in front of me. If they could tell me it was good, to my face, I would buy them dinner at Grace or next – they wouldn’t do it! I went three times and each time my dining companions said you’re crazy to come back and I won’t do this again. I’ve casually asked others in the food community and know I’m not alone in my thinking. Even a food writer I don’t get along with couldn’t find a nice word to say about it. It might be the only thing we’ve ever agreed on. This place is an utter head scratcher!
Sienna Tavern – They have a Wagyu meatball and it’s dry! Their gelato is like no gelato I’ve ever had – not in a good way. Do I need to say anything else?
Ceres Table – You can keep telling me the chef is from Italy but when the food is bland and lacking in flavor I don’t care where they’re from. The pastas weren’t made correctly and the panna cotta had a whip cream garnish. Next.
Cocello – In the two hours I was here, I got to eat 5 dishes over 2 courses. Glacially slow can’t begin to describe how the service at dinner felt. I won’t blame my server because her section was asinine – tables outside and 1-2 tables 3/4s of the way inside. The food made me miss Dillman’s because that stuff had soul.
RPM Italian – Google my review. I’ve heard it’s gotten better but it’s usually from people who’ve snacked in the bar.
*Note: I love A10 but I am an investor. I also won’t be reviewing Formento’s because I’ve personally invested in the project as well. Take that info for what it’s worth.
My Italian Recommendations
Some think I just bitch and moan, to bitch and moan. If you’ve met me, you know I’m an optimist and want restaurants to be good. But, I look at any restaurant critically and can get a feel before walking in to a place how it might go. I want to like places. I promise. I find it funny that when people do meet me in person they realize I’m not nearly the cynic they expect.
If someone asked me to give them an Italian restaurant recommendation, this is what I would tell them. In no particular order…
The Florentine – Chris Macchia is a friend and a damn good chef. The guy knows his food and has some of the best pasta in the city. He doesn’t slam lots of stuff on the plate and does a lot with very few ingredients. It’s a really good restaurant with a solid wine list. I still remember the delicious and perfectly balanced octopus dish I had two years ago.
Piccolo Sogno – The food and wine work together very well. My advice is to hunt that wine list because there is always a gem or two. I always find one I think is missing a 1 or 2 in front of the price. I would stick to the fish dishes and pastas. I’ve had some so-so dinners but I’ll keep going back because the good are so very good.
Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia – If you love or even like Italian wine – GO! The food is better than the view and the view is pretty great. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad bite. I’m more of a café guy personally.
Balena – Chris Pandel is a gem when it comes to Italian food. His pastas are spot on and his starters are like Chris Macchia’s - lots of flavor with few ingredients. This isn’t a red sauce joint of the past but there’s no reason it can’t be open for 20 years.
Coco Pazzo – Yes, Coco Pazzo. I honestly forgot about this place. When I went recently, I ordered a lot of food and ate nearly all of it. This is a place to consummate a business deal, take your girlfriends parents to dinner and ask permission for her hand in marriage or just enjoy a great meal of traditional Italian food. If anyone wants to open an Italian place, you should eat here to get a baseline.
If you’re in other neighborhoods this is how I see it…
Dinotto – Family owned spot in Old Town. If you’re in Old Town this is the spot to go. Topo Gigio is awful and while Dinotto can be a bit up and down it’s fairly middle of the road with an ok wine list.
Riccardo Trattoria and Riccardo Enoteca – Both run by the same chef, the Trattoria is more upscale while the Enoteca is more casual. I’ve enjoyed both and if I lived in Lincoln Park I’d eat here more often.
Davanti Enoteca – Little Italy – This is what I would imagine a modern Little Italy restaurant to be. It’s got a little nod to the old but a heaping portion of courage to do more modern food in that part of the city.
I won’t mention Three Aces as an Italian restaurant because it’s more bar with great food that has an Italian twist. BUT, if you are there and you see Anthony Potenza, tell him Angel’s cousin Joey said he should tell you a story or two from when he ran the floor at Giannotti's.
I think I’ll struggle with “What is Chicago Italian” for some time. I don’t believe there’s an easy answer. Italian food is difficult because it’s so simple in its ingredients. The slightest mistake is compounded. I think most restaurants should focus on a region or area and not try to wear the whole boot on its menu. Yet, I don’t think Chicago Italian is just about the food. I think there’s something to the environment that adds to the whole experience. I can remember my 65 yr old grandmother losing her mind like a teenager when Tony Bennett waved at her in Rosebud. Where would Frank and the Boys go today if they came to town for Italian? Would a new restaurant even have the guts to do meat or cheese ravioli’s as a menu item?
Update: I completely forgot about naming Pelago as a recommended restaurant. I find their pasta and risotto to be some of the best I've ever had. The tasting menu is also well portioned and won't leave you hungry at all. While it is on the higher end of the expense range the quality of food and service won't leave you feeling cheated.
A few people have reached out asking specifically about A Tavola. I dined here a number of years ago before I ever began writing. My experience was lack luster leaving me unimpressed by the gnocchi, which many rave about, and the rest of the dinner being rather middle of the road. I've not been back since despite enjoying the intimate dining room and environment. I don't consider this a new spot hence omitting it from that section and obviously isn't a place I would personally recommend. But because a number of people asked, I thought I would add my comments to the update.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter or instagram @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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