You'll sink about six inches into the leather banquettes at Formento's, the 859th new Italian restaurant to open in Chicago during the last 18 months or so. It's a nice detail that might persuade you that you've arrived at your grandfather's Italian restaurant, which of course you haven't. Formento's comes from what is now known as B. Hospitality, the folks behind the Bristol and Balena, who have striven to distinguish themselves from the horde by opening a proudly Italian-American red-sauce joint. It's named for partner John Ross's grandmother, and with it they're attempting to tap into a vein of nostalgia I'm sure runs through a great many dedicated eaters, if not a great many weary of the rigorous pursuit of old-world authenticity that's dominated these recent openings.
It's not that there aren't enough old-school Italian joints still going to please an army of Paulie Walnutses calling for macaroni and gravy. But chef Tony Quartaro doesn't take a totally conventional approach. Sure, there's chicken Parmesan and wedding soup, shrimp scampi and chicken Vesuvio, rigatoni in vodka sauce and a wedge salad. But with many of these standards he's taken liberties—sometimes puzzling ones.
You can see the irreverent approach up front on the relish tray, a slight nod to midwestern supper-club values that features unorthodox hors d'oeuvres like tiny, crystalline sweet potato cannoli, sculpted beet cubes topped with pesto and puffed rice, balls of ricotta wrapped in radicchio, and olives stuffed with anchovy dip. If you were to start your meal here you might be unprepared for the remainder of a menu that seems divided between the traditional and the contrarian.
The wedding soup is terrific and almost exactly what one would expect: limpid, amber Parmesan-infused broth poured over silky chicken meatballs. The wedge salad takes one of those turns too, its individual leaves larded with antipasti: salami, provolone, mortadella, and pepperoncini, all dressed in a sweet vinaigrette, with not a crumble of blue cheese to be found.
There's a preponderance of a similar sweetness all over the menu, which isn't necessarily surprising or even incorrect in Italian-American food. You taste it in the red peppers wrapped around a salted cod puree that needs only a dab of tartar sauce to come into balance. You taste it in the marinara that blankets the crispy, thick eggplant Parmesan and in the Sunday gravy with light, pillowy meatballs and tiny, mealy fennel sausages served to the side of the ruddy canestri.
Pastas here are a mixed bag. The sizable orecchiette cradling bits of sausage and rapini are done well. The timpano, the giant stuffed-and-baked pasta drum featured in the movie Big Night, is particularly poorly executed: though its interior meatballs, sausage, spinach, ricotta, and eggs are cooked to the perfect temperature and texture, its pasta shell is stiff as cardboard.
Tuna tetrazzini bears no resemblance to the original casserole, instead featuring slabs of ruby-red tuna wrapped in lardo, served with mushrooms, potato puree, and almond-garlic foam—yes, you read that right. There's no actual pasta in this dish, but it does feature one of most spent modernist tricks in the book. Nonna Formento rolls in her grave.
She'd likely be just as puzzled by the chicken Vesuvio. Here a whole $47 bird is served separately from the potato wedges and pan juices, a strategy I assume is meant to preserve its crispy skin, which is stuffed with some kind of herbal farce. Separating the elements needlessly deconstructs a dish whose elements are supposed to harmonize.
These criticisms aside, there is some good food coming from the kitchen. Tart fennel- and cauliflower-heavy giardiniera comes with a bread service of light focaccia or crusty Italian bread. Rabbit cacciatore, a braised leg and dough-wrapped saddle stuffed with mousseline, is served in rich and savory sugo, while a quail saltimbocca, wrapped in prosciutto and served with smoked cauliflower, is one winning twist on the original. A side dish of escarole swimming in cream and Fontina cheese was among the best things I ate at on my visits, mimicking and improving on steak-house-style creamed spinach.
One thing Formento's manages to avoid that red-sauce joints usually don't is needlessly oversize portioning, the exception being the desserts, which are large enough to weigh down the doggie bag, from a towering chocolate layer cake to a huge slab of spumoni, its layers of rich ice cream jacketed in a thin layer of pistachio cake.
The wine list is formidable and includes everything from three house-brand varieties to unusual small producers like Fattorie Romeo del Castello, whose vines grow in the middle of a lava field on Mount Etna—interesting wines you'll have a better shot of identifying with the able assistance of former Alinea sommelier Steve Morgan.
But overall Formento's seems like a house divided to me—one side trying to force classic Italian-American dishes into some skewed alternate reality, the other wanting it to remain exactly where it is. Either way, it doesn't quite scratch the itch for nonna's cooking.