Balena: Pizza, pasta, octopus and overall awesomeness

Balena: Pizza, pasta, octopus and overall awesomeness
Photograph: Anna Knott

I visited Balena, 1633 N. Halsted St., on Monday night with my wife and sister-in-law.

Balena – which I would describe as a hip Italian restaurant – has received good reviews from both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Magazine since opening. And from my first steps into the restaurant, I got a good vibe from the place. As did the Chicago Magazine reviewer:

Things are a little more grounded at Balena, the latest production from the Boka Restaurant Group (Perennial Virant, GT Fish & Oyster, Girl & the Goat). For one thing, the redo of the Landmark space across from Steppenwolf has a breezy, inclusive feel. It’s lofty, with a cathedral ceiling and stone floors, and when the double doors in front are open, it feels like a welcoming Italian barn.

The menu is presented as a sharing one, but only if you're choosing a pasta dish. We were not. We shared the Octopus and Farro Verde, Black Olive, Rapini, Fireball Vinaigrette ($14) from the starters portion of the menu and I got the Mozzarella, Basil, Tomato pizza ($10), while my wife and sister-in-law opted to split the Mushroom, Fontina, Taleggio, Scallion, Thyme pizza ($16).

The octopus starter was fantastic, which was not particularly surprising since I love octopus and black olive. It was wonderfully briny and flavorful. And the pizzas both were top-notch. I've had countless mozzarella, basil and tomato pizzas and this one ranked with the best of them. I might have liked the mushroom pizza even more. The scallion – especially – really worked well with it.

Phil Vettel of the Tribune also liked the restaurant and its food in his review.

Pizza-and-pasta restaurants are not places one goes in search of imagination, but Balena is the delirious exception. If you're cutting carbs, steer clear of Balena. But it's your loss.

I must say, I have to agree with him here.

• Joe Grace is a writer and  journalist who lives in Chicago with his wife. If you haven't yet, please like Going for Gusto on Facebook or follow me on Twitter.

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