Chicago folks, if you haven’t hit up this BYOB Italian spot yet, you’re dining wrong

Chicagoans will attest that there is no shortage of delicious Italian food in the Windy City. On every corner and from every price point, there’s always an option for handmade pastas (shoutout to the “pasta queen of Chicago” for winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef) or grandma’s bolognaise recipe. And yet, if you haven’t dined at Antoine Cedicci’s Trattoria Ultimo, you’re missing out on an experience that’s unique even to Chicago’s Italian-filled scene.

In a haze of wine and laughter, I spent a warm spring evening eating my way through 21 dishes at Trattoria Ultimo. Yes, you read that right, 21. I was expecting two or three. Heck, I don’t even think the official menu has more than 12 dishes or so on any given day, but Chef Antoine Cedicci is both highly generous and deeply enthusiastic. Any time you’re at the restaurant, you’ll see an intensely quiet, dark haired man bouncing between the kitchen and the tables, never saying much but always smiling. Ask him about the thought behind a dish though and you’ll be regaled. Antoine bonds with those who share his excitement over ingredients and creativity, emanating pure joy at the thought of being able to share his old favorites or new ideas with those who can appreciate them.

Executive chef and co-owner of Trattoria Ultimo, Antoine grew up in the South of France where cooking was his way of life. Antoine spent his childhood making everything from scratch—olive oils, tomato sauces, pastas, cured meats, marmalades—using the freshest of ingredients and adding a little bit of cheekiness to each dish. This way of cooking is reflected in his best dishes at Trattoria Ultimo today. It’s all in Antoine’s eyes. Watch them as he places a dish in front of you. If it’s a dish that has great meaning to him, there’s an air of soft grace with with he presents it, almost like a father beaming at something sweet his child has done.

Razor clams and calamari on top of gluten-free gnocchi

Razor clams and calamari on top of gluten-free gnocchi. Photo provided by Once Upon A Dollhouse

When Antoine’s about to surprise you with something creative, there’s a glint in his eyes that betrays how much fun he has watching you interact with his creations.

As the conceptor, recipe creator, and executive chef, Antoine’s ever-changing menu is sparked by his insatiable appetite for research. Having traveled throughout Europe and learning at the hands of chefs across Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and France, Antoine’s approach to food is driven by discovery and playfulness.

When I expressed my satisfaction and curiosity about the John Dory and the Arctic Char dishes, his face lit up and he pulled a small book from his trouser pocket and proudly shared it with me. It turned out to be a well-worn, incredibly detailed guide to all different types of fish. Scrawled in margins were Antoine’s notes, his pen barely able to keep up with his mind. His love for collecting and consulting books that discuss various aspects of food sheds a lot of light on how and why he enjoys pushing boundaries of the typical Italian menu.

With its rough wooden tables and intimately cozy space, Trattoria Ultimo welcomes you like your favorite neighbor. Grab a chair inside or on the patio, have a glass of wine and, before you know it, hours have passed leaving you feeling blearily happy and satiated. You get the comforts of Italian food with delightful, unexpected twists.

Meatballs

Meatballs. Photo provided by Once Upon A Dollhouse

 

Risotto with foie gras and taleggio cheese

Risotto with foie gras and taleggio cheese. Photo provided by Once Upon A Dollhouse

 

Profiteroles with house-made gelato

Profiteroles with house-made gelato. Photo provided by Once Upon A Dollhouse

And, throughout, a dark haired, ever-grinning man with a glint in his eyes as he watches over tables that fall in love with each other, themselves, and the food.


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