In early 2007 a little restaurant called Baccala opened in Wicker Park, inspired by chef John Bubala's visit to Piemonte, in northwestern Italy, one of the greatest food regions in the world. Bound on three sides by the Alps, it has given the planet a lot of treasure: revered wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Asti; cheeses like robiola and Castelmagno; egg-rich pastas like agnolotti and tajarin; classic dishes like vitello tonnato and the magisterial bollito misto; and the king of the Tuber genus, the white truffle of Alba. It's also home to the headquarters of the Slow Food movement, the kitchenware design firm Alessi, and the very first Eataly.
Baccala's interpretation of Piemontese cuisine was something new, unique, and pretty daring at the time, and Wicker Park just wasn't ready for it. Despite critical acclaim, it closed after just four months. That was long before the city's current saturation with new and unusual Italian restaurants, which nonetheless have mostly been confined to the center of the city. Is Logan Square ready for an even more specialized expression of the food of Piemonte?
That's all hanging on Italian-born owner and host Aldo Zaninotto, a front-of-the-house lifer who last worked as the general manager at Ditka's, and his chef, Scottish-born Cameron Grant, who spent many years of his career cooking in Piemonte before landing at Fresco 21 in Rosemont's InterContinental Hotel two years ago. The pair have opened Osteria Langhe in the awkward little space once inhabited by Brand BBQ, where they're pushing a top-to-bottom Piemontese menu of simple, minimally seasoned dishes that rely heavily on the quality of their elemental ingredients, particularly those hailing from the hilly subregion that gives the restaurant its name.
Antipasti are headlined by the classic vitello tonnato, shaved slices of cold veal roast with a citrus-brightened tuna aioli pooled on top, garnished with half a soft-boiled egg, gooey in the yolk and fried crispy on the exterior. Less iconic representatives of the Piemonte result from its abundance of rice paddies, home to large populations of frogs and snails. Grant figuratively addresses these invasions with a plate of lightly fried amphibian legs, frenched for easy dipping in a mild tomato sauce, and a confit of snails (also a nod to Slow Food's mascot), cooked with leeks and carrots in the white Arneis wine varietal native to the region. Coarsely chopped, superfresh raw beef appears as the most rustic of steak tartares, served with the long, thin, malty-tasting bread sticks known as grissini, which are brought to the table at the beginning of the meal. They're not very useful for sopping up sauces or getting raw beef to the teeth, but it's difficult to stop eating them just the same.
One of the more elegant presentations of a humble regional specialty is a fonduta, a rich puree of fontina cheese, cream, eggs, and butter that forms the base for a molded flan of emulsified artichokes and asparagus; sprinkled with baby beet greens, it's a dish that's somehow both buoyant and sumptuous. The latter trait is echoed with a seared scallop paired with a deep-fried sweetbread, both sitting on a blanket of cauliflower puree dotted with golden raisins, capers, and hazelnuts.
For the primi course there are only three options, two pastas—both historically from the Langhe—and a changing risotto of the day, the small selection reflecting the dominance of rice over wheat in the region. Delicate, almost transparent, egg-rich plin, a tinier cousin of agnolotti, are filled with deposits of molten La Tur cheese (made from goat, cow, and sheep's milk) that burst in the mouth with creamy, funky explosions. It's easily my favorite pasta dish in the city right now, but the tajarin—long, thin, flat noodles—shouldn't be ignored either, whether sauced simply in butter and sage or in a devastatingly rich tomato ragu of beef, pork, and rabbit.
These pastas are appropriately portioned to save room for larger secondi, all centered on a piece of protein with a vegetable and a simple but often rich sauce. Rabbit loin is wrapped in bacon to preserve its juices, cooked in a battuto of diced aromatics, and served with the same large wedges of soft-roasted potatoes that come with a similarly cooked chicken leg and thigh, with carrots and zucchini julienned finely enough to absorb the Barolo and honey that sweeten the dish. A perfectly crisped fillet of moist, flaky sea bass is paired with mild sweet-and-sour peppers, all resting on bed of French-style lentils, while a New York strip is sauced with a Barbera reduction that cuts the richness of an accompanying cheesy fondue and battered and lightly fried asparagus stalks.
Desserts aren't as expertly executed. A hazelnut cake disintegrates in its cream sauce, and a gelato flavored with tannic red grapes tastes icy. But if you were in Piemonte, you'd probably just finish with a piece of fruit and a glass of amaro anyway. You can certainly get the latter from the bar, along with more than 70 wines, all Piemontese (excepting the champagne), ranging from a $135 young Barolo to a bright, refreshing Arneis at $35.
I've complained a lot about unfocused approaches to Italian in the recent past. If places would get into it with the same commitment to regional specialization that Osteria Langhe does, there'd be nothing to gripe about. There are 20 different regions in Italy, after all.
Here's hoping Logan Square's more welcoming than Wicker Park was.