“These people are genius,” Fabio Viviani exclaims, looking around in approval at what’s certain to be the tiniest wine-only lounge in the city. TR Napa Valley (61 E. Oak St., 312-929-2299) served as an appropriate backdrop for my first encounter with the Top Chef star, who proclaims he’s “the biggest wine drinker you’ll ever know.” The bar carries more than 8,000 bottles on display in cases along the walls and in the back room, with 80 percent originating from Napa Valley.

Don’t be surprised if you run into Viviani, a California resident, at this Gold Coast–based bar as a regular, because he’s set to open Siena Tavern (51 W. Kinzie St., 312-595-1322) in River North on February 15. He’s partnered with nightlife hotshots David Rekhson and Lucas Stoioff (Bull & Bear, Public House) for the contemporary Mediterranean restaurant, which will feature original recipes from Viviani’s grandmother, interactive cooking classes, a craft-cocktail program, and a crudo and pizza bar. Over a bottle of TR’s own TR 3 Reserve from 2008, he shared additional details on the new restaurant and more.

You’re very personable and appear to be a huge flirt, and that’s part of the reason you won “Fan Favorite” during your season of Top Chef. Is that really you or the Italian persona you think the public wants?
FABIO VIVANI: I am a very well-behaved man. I respect ladies very much.... I learned how to be polite because of my grandfather, who was the ultimate gentleman. He always told me that in a relationship you can either be right or you can be happy. He told me to always go for happiness and let the lady be right. It was the best piece of advice he ever gave me.

What was the best thing about being on Top Chef, Top Chef All Stars, and Life After Top Chef?
FV: The cool thing was the exposure. The only reason why people are on TV—unless you’re Clint Eastwood, Angelina Jolie, or Tom Cruise—is for the exposure. Few people have the guts to say it. They’ll say they came because they have a “competitive spirit.” [But] you went there because you want to be exposed, and you want to expose your brand. We’re business people. We will do anything it takes to promote the business—as long as it fits within our principles. For me, television was an opportunity to expose who I am, what I do, what I’m about.

Why Chicago?
FV: Chicago has been, in the past few years, the new destination for foodies. Everyone’s still talking about New York and Vegas, but Chicago is where everything is happening right now. It’s gorgeous, and some of my best friends are here. I adore Chicago. David Rekhson and Lucas Stoioff are two great friends of mine. I met them through mutual friends about two and a half years ago, and we’ve been working together on this project ever since.

This is a big town for Italian cuisine. Are you intimidated by the competition? How will you compete?
FV: My food is very simple. I’m not trying to compete with the masters like Tony Mantuano or Giuseppe Tentori. My food doesn’t even come close. My food is bold, flavorful, and in your face. It’s inspired by the Mediterranean, from France, Spain, Morocco, Greece, and Italy. Not just Italian, but Italian flavors.... I’m opening an honest eatery with a cool and modern edge that meets rustic trattoria. The food is going to be amazing because I will put my heart into it. I may not be the best chef out there, but I’m the most passionate.

I’m excited about the cocktail program. Will it be all Italian? Will there be a Negroni on the menu?
FV: The menu will have an Italian accent, but it will not be all Italian. I will make you the best Negroni you have ever had. It’s one of two cocktails I can make behind the bar with confidence. A good Negroni is strong at the beginning and light at the end.

What is your favorite dish to cook, and how did you learn how to make it?
FV: Fresh pasta. I can make it with both of my hands tied behind my back. I learned how to make it from my grandmother when I was five years old. She wanted to channel my energy, so she taught me how to cook.

Is there going to be one signature dish that’s certain to be a home run?
FV: We’re going to have the best two dishes: the best truffle gnocchi and butternut squash ravioli in town. I am going to be cocky about this because I learned how to make them from my grandmother.

What should diners expect at Siena Tavern?
FV: We’re going to have family recipes, classic American dishes, and Italian staples. I don’t want it to be too Italian, though. Everything, of course, will be made from scratch and super simple, but in a very high-profile environment. We’re trying to throw a party every night.

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