As a food writer, I'm beginning to view the appearance of every new Italian restaurant with existential dread. In terms of word slinging, the battle between steak houses and Italian spots for Chicago restaurant hegemony throughout the last few years has me running low on ammo. While there are fresh things to write and be excited about (Osteria Langhe, Animale), I fear the oversupply of new, formulaic, pan-Italian pizza-pasta-piattini pushers might be creating an impression among unseasoned eaters that one of the world's greatest cuisines is molto repetitivo. My instinct is to disregard these restaurants in favor of any kind that smells even remotely original.
But when a restaurateur as seasoned as Billy Lawless (the Gage, the Dawson) goes Italian, as he did at the nontraditional Mag Mile crowd-pleaser Acanto, duty calls. Lakeview's Southport corridor is the scene of his second Italian effort, Coda di Volpe, which unlike the generalized Acanto at least specializes in something—southern Italian. Lawless, along with partner Ryan O'Donnell (Gemini Bistro), brought in chef Chris Thompson, who for two years helmed the celebrated A16 in San Francisco, which focuses on the food of the southwestern region of Campania.
Here, a long dining room divided by spacious clamshell booths sits between a bright and busy bar in the round (where a chummy bartender complimented a pal's inaccurate pronunciation of chitarra) and one of those hulking tiled wood-burning ovens that have become compulsory for anyone wishing to sell Neapolitan pizza. If you find yourself overfed on them, a fun-house mirror above the steps leading to the bathroom will reinforce your bloated form, something that might have a negative cumulative effect on dessert tickets.
It's in this environment that Thompson presents a familiar menu template: small plates, antipasti, nine pizzas, five pastas, and a short selection of customary secondi (roasted branzino, chicken diavola, and a dino-size 16-ounce pork chop).
One thing that clearly sets this menu apart is the presentation of a bottle of house-made Calabrian chile oil. It shows a remarkable lack of ego in an accomplished chef that he would arm his guests with the unlimited ability to alter the flavor of his food. Or maybe Thompson errs on the side of caution, suspecting the default Lakeview palate has a capsicum tolerance well below the southern-Italian standard. Either way, there was little I ate at Coda di Volpe that wasn't improved by it.
With it I doused my margherita di bufala pizza—the baseline variety for evaluating any pizza operation. It's a commendable version: a high, blistered crust descending to a thin plain of pliable dough leading to a soft, gooey center, with a judicious application of fatty cheese and acidic sauce riding the surface. Textbook.
I applied that oil to nearly every little plate I tried: the seared spice-crusted tuna, topped with a cool celery-heart salad, already fragrant with orange oil; the smoky charred grilled octopus, as tender as its accompanying fingerling potatoes; the soft but pliable mortadella and prosciutto meatballs; the crispy deep-fried bucatini pasta fritters.
The oil added an interesting element to the bittersweet balance of a chicory and persimmon salad with candied hazelnuts and Castelfranco cheese, and it perked up the earthy bass notes of a generous plate of roasted carrots and parsnips not much boosted by a dull sheep's-milk cream sauce.
About the only dish that didn't seem to beg for that chile oil was the aforementioned chicken diavola, a perfectly roasted half bird lacquered in a light sweet-and-spicy glaze.
Thompson is also rolling a few uncommon pasta shapes: horn-shaped trombette in a Sicilian-style pesto of tomato and crushed almond with fennel sausage and sharp Caciocavallo cheese; fettuccine made with chickpea flour, topped with pork ragu and salty dried ricotta. More conventionally, string-shaped chitarra nestle among vaguely manky clams with meaty nduja, preserved lemon, and the minty herb nepitella, while fat bucatini swim in the rendered juices of roasted cherry tomatoes.
On the dessert menu, which includes an apple crostata and a chocolate-almond mousse cake, autumn saw a dense buffalo ricotta cheesecake with preserved blueberries give way to a lurid version of the Sicilian breakfast of champions: a pumpkin spice brioche stuffed with dense, creamy sweet potato gelato on a pool of pumpkin creme anglaise, all showered with sweet toasted pecans. Don't hate. It's decorative gourd season, motherfuckers.
A short list of Italian reds and whites and a few Italian craft beers is overshadowed by a decent cocktail list featuring a marvelous "slushie cocktail"—made with vodka, prosecco, crema di limoncello and given a savory note with saltwater—along with more basic but optimally executed standards like a negroni and an old-fashioned.
Coda di Volpe is hardly reinventing Italian. It would struggle to stand out among the downtown throng of high-Italian concepts. But in Lakeview it's a little splash of chile oil on the relatively mild Southport corridor. v