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At Ripasso, a war on salt

Pasta pro Theo Gilbert has opened shop in Wicker Park, but where's the flavor?



You can imagine that Theo Gilbert would have sided with the free commune of Perugia in the Salt War of 1540. That's when the Umbrian city rebelled against Pope Paul III after he dumped a new salt tax on their heads. Perugians lost the war and were absorbed into the Papal States, but stopped putting salt in their bread, an act of civil disobedience that resulted in the pane sciapo, or "bland bread," they still bake today.

Thing is, that's an urban legend—even before that, lots of regions in Italy made saltless bread, which paired well with cured meats and cheeses and other more intensely seasoned foods. Either way, the house-baked bread at Gilbert's new Ripasso is a lot like those light and flavorless loaves, and comes with a dose of chile-spiked olive oil to spice things up at the beginning of the meal.

Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of classical Italian cooking, disapproves of the quintessentially American practice of sopping good oil up with table bread, but Gilbert, the uncompromising chef-owner of the late Terragusto, has earned some slack. The Roscoe Village location he opened five years ago (one in Lincoln Park followed) was among the first midscale—i.e., not Spiaggia—restaurants educating Chicagoans on the sublimities of fresh house-made pasta. If he and his staff could, on occasion, be supercilious or condescending, that's something we routinely forgive of culinary artisans who show a higher way (see Great Lake and the now-closed Pasticceria Natalina). Theoretically, we should be grateful that Gilbert, after closing both BYOBs—citing the lousy economy (and, bizarrely, Two Buck Chuck-swilling Occupiers)—found a way to return in a narrow Wicker Park space once inhabited by the unlamented Caoba.

Ripasso's front-of-the-house staff, incidentally, couldn't be nicer, and while ex-Drawing Room mixologist Tim Lacey has departed, the short cocktail list he helped curate hits all the important base spirits while incorporating key Italian liqueurs. Another important change in the operation gives one the option of accepting the staff's recommendations for somewhat undersung regional wines (Sardinian, Campanian, Puglian) and a few Valpolicellas made with the intensifying refermentation technique the restaurant is named for. I'm particularly glad I took a server up on an $8 glass of Friulian Palmadina, an inky, chocolatey red that couldn't have gone better with a creamy pappardelle with a truffle-oiled four-meat ragu.

You could take Gilbert's saltless bread as an auspicious sign that what they'll be bringing you after it will be both rigorously authentic and delicious. It's unquestionable that, as at Terragusto, the pastas are the magnet, many carrying over from that menu. The cappellaci is particularly recommended. Often referred to as "pope's" or "brigand's'' hats, these tender pillows are stuffed with sweet squash and Parmigiano, sauteed in sage and brown butter, and sprinkled with crumbled amaretti, the almond cookies that transport this sumptuous northern recipe into the region of dessert.

Similarly, in terms of texture you can't find fault with the wide ribbony pappardelle or the tagliatelle tossed with clams in a white wine sauce. The problem with these otherwise exemplary noodles is that while they show the appropriate saucing restraint pastas of this caliber demand, the sauces themselves are underseasoned, and boldly so. The pork, veal, beef, and lamb ragu in the pappardelle presents four differences without a single distinction; there's barely a hint of acid with the tagliatelle and just a whisper of chile; and the lamb sausage, cauliflower, and roasted onion dressing the firm, tubular folletti add little apart from volume.

This seems to extend to many of the antipasti too. Firm pork meatballs are filler in a one-note tomato sauce, and the crispy arancini stuffed with melted mozzarella might have been improved if I'd discovered the shallow pool of acidic anchovy-spiked bagna cauda hidden underneath. On the other hand, this light hand with the sodium works well with the maiale tonnato, a circular formation of thinly shaved pork loin dressed with capers, arugula, and a tuna aioli, and the sformato, a smooth flanlike onion custard accompanying braised rabbit and mushrooms. Both dishes, tellingly, are served cold.

Among meaty second courses such as roast chicken, braised pork shank, and Wagyu steak, pan-seared Wisconsin trout fillets with roasted potatoes are among the most lively tasting things on the menu, while a scallop and mushroom risotto benefits from distinct grains that were at least seasoned by the cheese. But like the trio of desserts—which include tough, overfried zeppoli strands drenched in chocolate-hazelnut sauce and thick slices of moist apple strudel with creamy maple panna cotta—they're not why you come to Theo Gilbert's restaurants.

I understand that the objective is to let superior ingredients stand on their own merits, but it tastes as if he's holding back too much. In the years since Terragusto opened, fresh house-made and beautifully sauced pastas have become de rigueur in midscale Italian eateries such as the Florentine, Piccolo Sogno, Antico, and even Berwyn's Autre Monde, whose principals, like Gilbert, are Spiaggia vets. If Ripasso is to stand out in that crowded field, the chef and his cooks ought to stop fighting the Salt War.

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