Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Homey Italian, Traditional Vietnamese, and Breakfast Like They Do It in Europe

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Anna Maria Pasteria

4400 N. Clark

773-506-2662

My first apartment in Chicago was on West Dakin, just around the corner from Anna Maria Pasteria. I was usually broke, but when I did have a few extra dollars this low-key Italian restaurant on Broadway was my default "nice" place. The neighborhood was still a couple of years away from complete gentrification--Anna Maria's facade wasn't much to look at, and from the street you could barely tell the place was open. But the food was marvelous and truly a bargain--especially chef Anna Picciolini's pasta dishes, which were expertly sauced and overflowing with meats and vegetables. This spring ANNA MARIA PASTERIA relocated to Montrose and Clark, where you can find much of the old magic. You can still get a decent bottle of wine for a reasonable price (about $30, or $6.50 for a glass). The food costs a little more now, but it's essentially the same. On a recent visit, rigatoni with mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes was dressed with just the right amount of Gorgonzola cream sauce, the grilled portobellos were meaty and succulent, and the calamari were, as they used to be, average. The meat and seafood dishes have always been hit-or-miss. My salmon, for instance, was thin and half-drowned in an ocean of butter. But I'm happy to report that the tiramisu is still one of the best around; in fact it's even sweeter, creamier, and richer than before. The biggest change is the ambience, and it's a sad one: dark, warm, low-key intimacy has been replaced by light, airiness, and sandy faux-Tuscan walls; huge windows face south, giving you a perfect view of the Dunkin Donuts and 7-11 across the street. --Chip Dudley

Cafe Lao

1007 W. Argyle

773-275-5092

Three months after Tank Noodle moved to the corner of Broadway and Argyle, Simon Nguyen, a gregarious man who'd worked there, finally decided it was time to open his own place, Cafe Lao, in the newly vacated space. He's painted the walls bright orange, but the room's still warm and intimate. His Vietnamese menu is short and straightforward: there's a sampling of traditional appetizers, pho, bun (rice noodle salad), grilled-meat-on-rice dishes, and meals cooked at the table on hot pots. Nguyen's spring rolls are meticulous--tightly wound, with bountiful shrimp, basil, and, in an unexpected but welcome twist, a thin slice of Vietnamese bacon. His pho is subtly spiced and not overly salted; slices of rare beef top the broth and come to the table half submerged. The beef tenderloin on rice with watercress is phenomenal: meltingly tender beef is cubed, marinated in soy, garlic, sugar, and a touch of lemongrass, and quickly stir-fried. (Some of the cubes have a visible layer of glorious fat.) The hot pots--among them a Thai tom yum variation and oxtail with ginger--serve four to six. Nguyen's favorite pot is the duck with salted bean curd. --Peter Tyksinski

Andersson's Chocolates/Patisserie

520 N. Michigan

312-222-0559

Last week ANDERSSON'S CHOCOLATES/PATISSERIE expanded its third-floor space at Westfield North Bridge (aka the Nordstrom building), where it opened in January as a small chocolate shop. Now, in addition to Belgian Neuhaus chocolates (with fillings like marzipan-cognac and ginger-orange), it has a sit-down tearoom with pastries, organic yogurt, breads, cheeses, and savories including prosciutto-and-Asiago croissants. None of the house-made baked goods contains margarine or lard, says owner Michael Anderson. He offers 68 kinds of tea, from organic Earl Grey to ayurvedic brews, but no coffee. "If you sell coffee," he says, "you're just like the rest of the guys." His background in designing corporate gifts is evident in the small retail section, which includes pricey Scandinavian dishes and cookware--customers shopping for a hostess gift can pick up a block of Parmesan cheese and a grater for about $40 and get them wrapped on the spot. Less expensive take-alongs include individual flourless chocolate cakes ($5 apiece), Austrian strawberry preserves ($8 per jar), and bottles of unhomogenized organic chocolate milk made with Dutch cocoa ($6). Breakfast is available all day, either a la carte or as one of three set menus such as the Michigan Avenue Breakfast: juice, bread, cream cheese, yogurt, granola, fruit, and tea. --Anne Ford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.

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