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"Apparently we renovate every 15 years," Tony Mantuano says when I ask him how long it's been since Spiaggia last got an updating. "It's been 15 years and this is our 30th anniversary."
Spiaggia is one of Chicago's consequential restaurants; it surely wasn't the first place to make lighter, more refined northern Italian food in a red-gravy town, but by aiming for a four-star level when Chicago's finest restaurants all started with "Le" or "Les," it marked a bold statement in America by Levy Restaurants that Italian could be world-class cuisine. And because it arrived in 1984, you have to think Spiaggia's ambition influenced others who had similar ideas about American (Charlie Trotter) and Mexican (Rick Bayless) cooking later in the same decade.
Spiaggia's bones remain the same. No one would trade away its third-floor view of Oak Street Beach and the lake, and it retains the shape of a multilevel ring of seats that face the windows with a glassed-in kitchen behind them. But the dated 90s plush in hunter green and gray has been replaced with a sleeker black-and-white look, and a dining experience that once aimed for master-of-the-universe pomp is adapting to a more relaxed world.
Mantuano shows me how the booths and tables and the new bar have all been reoriented toward the windows to ensure every diner has the lake view. But, in fact, you don't have to be a diner in the traditional sense to have the view. One end of the restaurant has been carved into a lounge, which is serviced with snacks from its own station equipped with a red Berkel slicer—the hood ornament of fine dining these days—and a carving stand for a leg of Cinco Jotas jamon Iberico. Jars of house-cured vegetables gleam inside a lit cabinet, and the cheese fridge sits as open to passersby as a cooler at a 7-Eleven. (Do not serve yourself, however.)
Even for a restaurant where the kitchen's always been on view, moving the meat and cheese right into the dining room is a slightly shocking declaration of casualness. To Spiaggia's first "very important customers" in the 80s, a scene like the giant blob of mozzarella being carved in the room would have looked like something from David Lynch's Dune.
The presence of Spanish ham raises a question, though—how Italian is Spiaggia these days? I run into Rachael Lowe, who recently joined as sommelier. Lowe has worked at some top restaurants, including Sixteen and Naha here, but there aren't many places left where you walk into a large cellar of high-end bottles, some of which have been in inventory for two decades. That might suggest that the wine was heavily French even when the food was rebelling against that, but she says: "It's an entirely Italian wine program except for some Champagnes. There are some incredible things in there that you're obviously not selling every night, so I'm trying to bring in some more accessible things. There's so much good Italian wine now."
The question still remains as we're seated for this media dinner (the restaurant reopens Friday). Some of our first courses, including foie-stuffed ravioli and gnocchi with shaved truffles, are the latest iterations of Spiaggia classics with their peerlessly delicate pastas blended with international fine-dining luxury. These dishes put Spiaggia on the map three decades ago, but that's no reason to take them off the menu now or ever.
But what of the venison tartare or a lobster salad whose main accents are watermelon and lavender? The latter in particular is a stunning dish, but I'm hard-pressed to name which region of Italy it would be from. Between courses I track down Chris Marchino, a six-year veteran of the restaurant's kitchen who was named executive chef when Sarah Grueneberg left earlier this year, and I ask him about his approach to updating the menu.
"The first step of the process was that I went to Italy, and Tony gave me a list of absolute must-visit restaurants," he says. "The goal was to visit restaurants in Italy that were sort of taking the next step, still using the same fantastic techniques and ingredients, but elevating them in a unique way. And, truthfully, this is what a lot of the best chefs in Italy are doing right now as well. They're not still making classic, rustic, old-school dishes, they're taking it to the next level.
"One really fun restaurant that I visited was called Metamorfosi in Rome. They're taking things to the next step using a lot of modern techniques. One dish you'll see in the lounge is a foie gras mousse encased in Amarena cherry. They do a dish that's kind of similar with foie gras encased in a fig puree. The whole dish looks like a fig and it's really playful and fun."
"But do they really have watermelon in Italy?" I ask.
"One of the nice things about Italy right now is that they're really branching out," he says. "It's just like the United States in that they have all kinds of trade coming through there, so it's not like they're limited to what's in their region. That said, they do have a great deal of respect for regionality. However, they're also using things that they find fun and interesting and new. So we felt like we had a newfound freedom to do that, and we were still staying true to what they're doing in Italy."