Silvia Marani's 94-year-old mother calls her daily from Bologna to advise on the preparation of the ragu at Merlo Ristorante, the romantic establishment Marani and her husband, Giampaolo Sassi, opened in December. Part of an age-old tradition of female cooks who guard one of Italy's most sophisticated cuisines, Marani has been preparing ragu under her mother's watchful eye for as long as she can remember. As the ragu simmers for four or five hours, Marani instructs one cook on the preparation of the fresh pasta, while another learns to fashion sumptuous pastries and a third observes the fine art of antipasti and secondi.
Bolognan by birth, Marani and Sassi were childhood friends in the ancient walled capital of the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Then they went on to live separate lives. Sassi sold financial services before becoming a diamond merchant; Marani designed sweaters for Max Mara and supervised their production. When they rediscovered each other 15 years ago, "We surprised ourselves and a lot of other people, too," says Sassi. After all, they were both married and had five children between them.
Last year two of Giampaolo's sons, who had ended up in Chicago, asked their father and Marani to move here so they could start a family business. Having once helped manage a restaurant outside Bologna, Marani commandeered the kitchen. Sassi greets customers. Stefano Sassi manages daily operations and supervises the bar.
"In Bologna, people built towers to show their success. We had hundreds of them," says Giampaolo. Likewise Merlo's interior, with its 16th-century wooden cabinet up front, reflects understated worldly comfort. But the owners also remember when their hometown was bombed during World War II. "Sometimes we had nothing to eat," says Giampaolo. "Food became number one in importance."
The wartime need to value and preserve food sources impressed itself on the couple, who belong to the international Slow Food movement. Using the snail as its symbol, Slow Food was founded in Italy in 1986 to promote "the flavors and savors of regional cooking." Practitioners like to get to know their suppliers and keep tabs on production methods. The Sassis shop daily, use only fresh ingredients, and never freeze them. Some of Emilia-Romagna's hallmark elements--balsamic vinegar, Parma ham, mortadella, and Parmigiana Reggiano--are imported from home. "We use very little tomato," says Giampaolo, but they use a lot of sweet nutmeg, fresh garlic, red pepper, black pepper, butter, olive oil, and milk.
Finding some ingredients has been challenging in a city where people drop into the restaurant to announce that Merlo should be spelled with a t. At first the homemade pasta lacked the proper yellow color. "We finally found a farmer who had the right dark eggs," Giampaolo says. It wasn't easy locating the correct beef diaphragm cut for Marani's ragu, but they did it. A local dairy farmer provides milk creamy enough for her sauces. "We are introducing dishes slowly," says Giampaolo. Then again, Marani has lots of surprises up her sleeve, including the sizzling risotto spumeggio--inspired by Ugo Tognazzi, the Italian star of the original La cage aux folles, who was also a passionate chef. Pork and frog's legs may follow.
Giampaolo designed Merlo's airy dining room, with its dappled terra-cotta walls and white linens, to have an ineffable aura of calm and privilege. Forget about bustling Italian trattorias where waiters squeeze past tables. Here old mixes effortlessly with new: a hazy oil painting up front, fashion photographs in the center of the restaurant, a sheltering portico in the rear that feels like a piazza.
The menu is just as adept. There are pure traditional recipes such as passatelli in brodi di gallina (small breaded egg noodles in hen stock), homemade tagliatelle, tortelloni, and tortellini, and the green lasagna characteristic of Bologna. Tarte di carciofi--artichoke tart with garlic, parsley, mortadella, and Parmigiana Reggiano--shows Marani's command of contemporary Bolognan style. Torta di pere, which resembles a French tarte tatin, honors her 85-year-old Aunt Laura, who has volunteered to abandon Paris to come to Chicago to help. (She hasn't acted on the offer yet.) Bolognan wiener schnitzel and the Sacher torte-inspired torta di cioccolato con panna montata reflect Viennese influences in the resort town of Cortina.
Hand-filled tortelloni ai funghi porcini are exquisite aprons of yellow dough stuffed with ricotta, parsley, Parmigiana Reggiano, and a scent of garlic, then dressed with porcini mushrooms in white sauce. Lamb loin in wild berry sauce and fried fish with artichokes and zucchini are among the veal, lamb, and fresh fish dishes. Desserts include semifreddo di zabaione con cioccolato caldo, a traditional warm pudding made with eggs and marsala.
From the exquisitely formed tortelloni to the perfectly chopped ragu, Marani draws on every secret mama ever taught her. And while legend has it that tortellini were created by a Bolognan innkeeper to resemble Venus's belly button, Giampaolo is not convinced. "Others need stories. We have the food."
Merlo Ristorante is at 2638 N. Lincoln, 773-529-0747.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.