Some people might be surprised to learn that Little Italy is not River North. The sheer volume of new Italian restaurants opening there and on Randolph Street in recent years seems unsustainable, and yet they keep coming. And with historically Italian enclaves like Taylor Street and Heart of Chicago now just pale shadows of themselves, the perception is almost understandable. But the stretch of Harlem Avenue dividing the city from west-suburban Elmwood Park (and thereabouts) has for decades maintained a stronger Italian-American presence than anywhere else in the region. Stronger and consistent, yes. But growing? Perhaps not until now.
You could argue that the neighborhood needs another Italian restaurant just about as desperately as downtown does, but BarTucci seems like an obvious, organic development, as one of the partners behind it is Gino Bartucci, young scion of the family who has operated neighboring fresh-pasta vendor Pasta Fresh for decades.
Now that every downtown restaurant is making its own pasta, why not offer some of the myriad shapes produced each day next door at tables, with subdued lighting and smooth-jazz pop covers on Pandora ("Stairway to Heaven," "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "What the World Needs Now Is Love")? Having grown up in the neighborhood, Gino Bartucci seems to have a keen sense of its old-school aesthetics, bedecking the small BYO space with faux Romano cheese wheels, Roman columns, Botticelli paintings flashing on a flat-screen, and a framed glass case—blessed by what I was told was "a real Italian priest"—in which customers can leave their wine corks. He and partner Neal Sage have also instituted polished and accommodating service gleaned from their experience at various downtown restaurants.
Chef Fiorenza Tasinato's brief menu is understandably focused on pastas, and that's where you'll want to turn your attention. And I mean exclusively. There are a dozen shapes in fairly familiar presentations, from linguine frutti di mare to rigatoni amatriciana to cavatelli with brasciole, cooked as precisely as they should be (usually), and dressed judiciously, with appropriate shapes and texture married to appropriate sauces (mostly).
Maybe I'm a sucker for tomato-vodka cream sauce just because part of me is trapped in the 80s, but there's no denying that this simultaneously sumptuous and brightly acidic sauce is enduring. At BarTucci it helps peas and Italian sausage bond to the deeply ridged rigatoni. Ravioli-like tortelli stuffed with sweet pumpkin puree in a sage-spiked butter sauce sprinkled with crushed amaretto cookies is just as familiar as it should be, and no less savory. Meanwhile tubular, twisted casarecce would likely lend themselves well to sweet red beet sauce tossed with goat cheese if they weren't overcooked.
But however well done the pastas themselves are, some of their accoutrements are flawed. The splurge on the menu—a whole lobster tail mounted on a pile of toothy, tentacular squid ink linguine in a brandied tomato cream sauce—was stringy and overcooked. The spaghetti with clams has an equally nice bite, but was so underseasoned it almost felt intentional. And tightly packed chicken tortellini bobbed in a thin tomato-tinged brodo that could have used more salt as well.
Nearly everything else I ate there, apart from the light, crusty focaccia, was in some way deeply flawed, from the ground eggplant polpettine extended so far by bread crumbs they might have been matzo balls to an over-the-hill wine-braised octopus that announced its arrival olfactorily well before it hit the table to a rubbery veal saltimbocca served with what I'm certain is the freshest asparagus you can get in January. There was brasciole so dry it crumbled at fork contact and a mushy molded risotto crowned with spent overcooked shrimp embittered by iodine.
I could happily eat pasta and only pasta for the rest of my life, and many of the dozen on the menu (compared to just four secondi) could make regular contributions to that endeavor. But for those who can't live on pasta alone, BarTucci has a long way to go to sustain them happily.