By Catherine De Orio | November 1, 2013 | Food & Drink
West Loop Salumi is Illinois’s first USDA-certified salumeria.
Chicago is having a very Italian moment. Throughout 2013, the city has enthusiastically participated in the nationwide celebration of the Year of Italian Culture with concerts, stage performances, and, most notably, the stunning summer light installation Divina Natura at The Field Museum. But as the nation revels in Italian culture, in the Windy City what it’s really shaping up to be is the year of Italian cuisine.
The Windy City's connection to Italy has always been passionate, dating back to the early 20th-century wave of immigration, during which a large percentage of new residents settled near Taylor Street, with culinary traditions helping create a sense of community among the immigrants. “Everyone was living in apartments together, so they would all share recipes,” says Alex Dana, a 40-year restaurant veteran, founder of the Rosebud Group, and lifelong Chicago native. “You could smell the flavor in the houses in those days. Whether it was soup or sauce, there was always a pot of flavor on the stove.” As people began to cook at home with less frequency, traditions were lost, sending patrons flocking to red-sauce spaghetti restaurants for what Dana lovingly calls “the flavors of home.” These first restaurants were pioneers—before the 1980s, they had no access to modern staples like truffle oil or buffalo mozzarella. Instead they used what was fresh and prepared it simply, the tried-and-true philosophy of the Italian kitchen. Tony Mantuano, chef/partner of Michelin-starred Spiaggia says, “You couldn’t even get fresh basil back then, and if you ordered radicchio, they’d send you red cabbage.” So with youthful optimism and enthusiasm he set out to bring Italy to Chicago by learning its region’s culinary traditions and techniques and painstakingly sourcing ingredients from the peninsula. Spiaggia’s Executive Chef Sarah Grueneberg playfully refers to him as “The Godfather” since he blew open the possibilities for Italian restaurants. Mantuano chuckles and chimes in, “Be careful who you say that around.”
How things have changed. Suddenly, contemporary Italian is all the rage in Chicago—2013 alone has seen the opening of a half dozen prominent spots, from Centro and Tre Soldi Trattoria to J. Rocco Italian Table & Bar, and big guns like Mario Batali and Paul Kahan are swooping in to add their four-star touch. Comforting, affordable Italian is what Chicago’s zeitgeist craves right now—as local foodies head into winter ready to shell out their dough for a taste of these chefs’ specialties. Italian fashion, wine, and design continue to send Chicagoans swooning, but it’s the food, with our city’s deeply rooted Italian heritage, which most richly expresses Chicago’s love for all things Italian. Local chefs have had a few years to play with the super-luxe ingredients that have finally made their way from the peninsula, so the timing of this Italian renaissance couldn’t be more perfetto.
Merlo on Maple’s Mozzarelline allo speck e asparagi.
For this new wave of Italian cuisine, authentic ingredients are key. “The availability of Italian products has never been greater, and it grows daily,” says John Coletta, chef/partner of River North staple Quartino. “That’s allowing for a more authentic Italian dining experience.” A purist at heart, Coletta points out that it’s impossible to exactly replicate what one gets in Italy—“but you can come very close.” His bustling State Street restaurant serves up homemade salumi, cheeses, seasonal pastas, and crisp-chewy Neapolitan-style pizza from a wood-burning oven. “We have a homogenization of Italian cuisine, meaning the regions are blended, and we do the same thing at Quartino,” he says. “While we stay true to a specific dish, it would be unheard of in Italy to serve tagliatelle Bolognese with an offering of burrata.” Coletta boasts encyclopedic knowledge of all things Italian—mention rice and he embarks on a dizzying discourse on types, how they are to be used, harvesting and processing procedures, and climactic conditions in the Po valley—but when asked what it means to him to serve this food he loves so much, he simply beams. “I am humbled and fortunate,” he says warmly. “It has been a lifetime of pure enjoyment and satisfaction.” The son of Italian immigrants, Coletta credits his parents with passing on not just culinary skills, but “the value and merit found in the Italian culture that are directly related to La Cucina Italiana.”
That’s a common theme among Italian chefs in Chicago. Long before veteran Tony Priolo began his career, the executive chef/owner of Piccolo Sogno and Piccolo Sogno Due was learning the secrets of the Italian kitchen from his grandmother. “Italian food is three to four ingredients on a plate,” he says. “It’s simple, like The Beatles or The Ramones, who proved you only need three chords to be good.” Though a traditionalist at heart, he welcomes new chefs to the scene. “I love [the new guys],” he says, “It’s great for the city and great for Italian food.”
And there are new Italian chefs aplenty in Chicago, as a movement toward comfort and accessibility has made Italian fare the hottest dining trend in the city. It all started in 2011 with the opening of Balena, a modern take on Italian paired with an impressive selection of amari, which effectively filled the gap between red-sauce favorites like La Scarola and Tufano’s and Michelin-starred Spiaggia and Pelago. Diners flocked, reviewers raved, and a slew of Italian restaurant openings has followed. A Saturday evening seating at Fabio Viviani’s Siena Tavern has become a status symbol. Scott Harris, founder of the Mia Francesca chain, recently opened a Davanti Enoteca in River North more than three times the size of the original Taylor Street wine-and-bites spot. And this summer, Joe Frasca threw his J. Rocco’s Italian Table & Bar into the ring with chef/partner Steve Chiappetti, turning out bowls of homemade pasta and “honest” rustic dishes. Chiappetti feels that Chicago is enjoying a time of no-fuss eating—that with Italian, there’s no need to improvise, comparing it to a classic Armani white collared shirt. “It’s clean, simple, and if worn correctly, it’s pretty damn elegant.” Then there’s the highly anticipated opening of Nico Osteria, an Italian seafood concept set to open in early December in the Thompson Hotel from rock-star chef Paul Kahan and his partners at One Off Hospitality Group (Avec, The Publican, Blackbird, Publican Quality Meats, Big Star). Says Kahan, “[Expect] a lot of homemade pastas, traditional bistecca fiorentina, and selections of fish by the pound, roasted whole and served tableside.” And considering Chicago’s current passion for all things Italian, it comes as no surprise that this month sees the opening of Mario Batali’s eight-restaurant, 63,000-square-foot food emporium Eataly in the heart of River North at The Shops at North Bridge.
Seafood pasta from Phil Stefani.
Local chefs cite numerous reasons for the resurgence of Italian cuisine. “People are very comfortable with Italian food,” says Chris Macchia, executive chef of The Florentine. Adds Chris Pandel, executive chef/partner of Balena, “From a cook’s perspective it’s inspiring, and from a diner’s it’s comforting.” As for Mantuano, he’s simply happy that other Chicago chefs have caught up to what he’s been preaching for decades. “Even 30 years later, there are still ingredients to discover,” he says, enthusing, “I could eat Italian food every single day.”
For Windy City cooks, serving Italian food penetrates the human longing for romance, security, and a sense of place and belonging. “It’s not just about the food, but the hospitality,” says Mantuano, who in his 30 years at Spiaggia has hosted everything from dinners with the president to Oprah’s 50th birthday party. “It is family food that brings back good times,” says Fabio Viviani, Siena Tavern’s executive chef. “It’s warm and comforting, like when you walk into your family’s home.” Asks Priolo, “How many times have you fallen in love in Italy? We tap into memories.” And serve them to Chicago diners.
Just as chefs have become more versed in the authentic culinary culture of Italy, many are moving away from their purist mentors and pushing boundaries in their Chicago eateries. In Italy, there are codes you do not break; but in Chicago, we experiment—with delicious results. Says Macchia, “We can have a simple whole roasted fish, and it’s classic, and if an Italian came here, they would get that. But we might also have seared scallops with fregula and prosciutto with a purée of roasted corn. It’s contemporary, but it still has an Italian essence.” Says Grueneberg, a spunky Texan with serious cooking chops, “I make something that’s Italian at heart, but maybe you’ll see Texas venison on the plate.” In many ways, even as the new chefs stray from the traditional, they stay true to tradition by following the tenets of the Italian kitchen: sourcing locally, then applying traditional cooking techniques to create a new type of Italian. “We are influenced by Italian regional dishes, but we are going to cook the way we do it,” says Kahan.
A selection of antipasti from Caputo Cheese Market.
Summing up his inspiration for bringing his version of Italian to the Windy City, Batali states, “Chicagoans are foodies by definition—it’s a city with an amazing food culture. It has chefs who are artists and technicians.” And though one may prefer chewy-crusted Neapolitan-style pizza or bottomless bowls of Italian-American spaghetti with meatballs, refined takes on rustic or modern interpretations of the classics, there’s one thing that all Chicagoans can agree on: In this city, everybody loves Italian. West Loop Salumi: 1111 W. Randolph St., 312-255-7004; Merlo on Maple: 16 W. Maple St., 312-335-8200; Stefani Signature Restaurants: Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush (437 N. Rush St., 312-222-0101); Tuscany (1014 W. Taylor St., 312-829-1990); Tavern On Rush (1031 N. Rush St., 312-664-9600); Caputo Cheese Market: 1931 N. 15th Ave., Melrose Park, 708-450-0469
Photography by Anjali Pinto