Chicago knows a thing or two about red sauce. Chefs in Italian eateries across town have been slinging recipes from the old country for more than a century. And while Chicago’s never had a shortage of Italian restaurants — from fine dining to folksy and everything in between — the city has a new crop of hot spots featuring fresh, modern takes on Italian fare. Here’s a look at four of the most recent openings:
This newcomer is poised for lasting success for several reasons, not the least of which are its location inside the Thompson Chicago hotel in the Gold Coast and the powerhouse restaurant group behind it. One Off Hospitality Group, which owns some of Chicago’s best and perennially popular eateries — Blackbird, The Publican, Big Star — opened Nico in December 2013. The seafood-focused restaurant has been packed ever since, and a weeks-long wait for reservations is standard procedure. Why all the hype? The rustic Italian fare is simple and locally sourced, but oh-so-elegantly prepared. Standouts include grilled octopus fettunta, lobster spaghetti and the sensational pastries (chestnut coffee cake and kouign amann, a caramelized croissant-like treat). Next door to the restaurant is a quieter lounge with lovely aperitifs that could easily tempt you to stay for another drink or three.
Everyone in Chicago has heard the big buzz about Mario Batali and Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker Joe Bastianich’s Eataly opening in December 2013 (on the same day as Nico Osteria, coincidentally). But Eataly’s fine-dining Italian restaurant, Baffo, debuted quietly a few weeks after the upscale Italian grocery store flung open its doors to the masses. While the atmosphere at Eataly’s many mini-restaurants is casual and encourages hopping from one spot to the next, Baffo is a white-tablecloth kind of place made for lingering over fine food and wine. (It also has its own entrance.) Aside from the very good food and extensive Italian wine list, part of the fun of eating at Baffo is quizzing the extremely knowledgeable servers on food preparation and ingredients — almost all of which can be bought at Eataly. Whether you can re-create the squid-ink fettuccini with lobster and spicy Calabrese salami or the asparagus Milanese at home is another story.
Venetian small plates reign over large pasta dishes at this new Streeterville spot. And while the food is decidedly Italian, much of it is sourced from the Midwest (probably not the squid tentacles, though). Never heard of Venetian small plates? Think house-cured sardines, pork belly bruschetta, short-rib-filled ravioli and spicy seafood stew. And we can’t forget the desserts. Playful and delectable, the sweets marry mainstay Italian ingredients with witty preparation. For example, traditional tiramisu is transformed into a sundae with tiramisu gelato, minty fudge, pistachio brittle and cherries. The cheesecake is made with ricotta and braised apples, and the reverse affogato comes with coffee gelato and seasonal doughnuts.
Crispy Brussels sprouts, handmade pasta, brick-grilled Cornish hen — this place has the type of dishes your grandmother would make if she were Italian, living in the old country and a great cook. Azzurra, too, places a focus on small plates and fresh, locally sourced food found on daily trips to the market. The feel of the Wicker Park spot is approachable and neighborhood-y with vintage fixtures and pastoral murals, and the fare is excellently prepared with sophisticated touches. To wit, those crispy Brussels sprouts’ leaves are fried and topped with loads of lemon and rich grated Pecorino. We suggest ending your Italian meal the way they do in Italy — with a robust digestivo, like the housemade limoncello.
Photo Courtesy of mind frieze