Italy's il Tricolore flies proudly above River North's Te' Jay's Adult Books—oops, sorry, it appears over Il Porcellino, the "Everyday Trattoria" next door. The flag is positioned just so as to blot out the porn shop's sign as you gaze up at the restaurant's own marquee. Named for the Florentine bronze boar that tourists feed their spare lire for good fortune, Il Porcellino is the restaurant Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has spawned, apparently by groupthink, to fill the space after retiring Paris Club (and Brasserie Jo before that). It certainly smells better than barnyard odor that greeted diners when Paris Club opened. But it has the same ersatz, Disneyesque artificiality that LEYE is prone to employ to entice the masses. There are the padded red-leather booths, the red-checkered tablecloths, the wicker-jacketed Chianti bottles, and a wall bedecked with photos of pop culture icons. OMG Dean Martin! the tourists will squeal. Tony Danza! Danny DeVito! It's a monument to Italian-Americans who've never eaten there nor will.
One evening before dinner at Il Porcellino I found myself having a drink at nearby Club Lago, the old-school, nominally northern-Italian joint that has weathered 64 years in River North, including a new Italian restaurant invasion over the last few. Club Lago's effortless genuineness more than makes up for what it lacks in innovative or even genuine old-world Italian food. But there I was, wishing I could just dive into a pile of green noodles al forno rather than wade through LEYE's meticulously researched effort to keep everyone's butts seated firmly in their comfort zones.
That being said, restaurants like Il Porcellino have merit as places where a disparate group of diners can all find solace in a meal and a room that feels familiar and hard to hate. Whether it's a corporate event or family reunion, rest assured that everyone's special needs will met with minimal effort and half smiles.
So it's pizza and pasta or chicken Parm and Caesar salad. But it's also Slagel Farms and Anson Mills and MightyVine tomatoes, for an inoffensive out-of-season caprese salad. These are the boutique producers familiar to a certain group of diners who may be put off by the appearance of rigatoni alla vodka or steak pizzaiola on a menu.
And you know what? It's fine. Mostly.
That caprese salad, a whisper of summer's promise, contains not the best tomatoes, but perhaps the best available in spring. Among other insalata and antipasti, a Sicilian seafood salad is a mound of fresh, snappy squid, shrimp, octopus, and nutty chickpeas. A plate of tuna carpaccio garnished with green olives and pistachios is a pretty, texturally intriguing plate. A grilled artichoke blooms like a flower. These are dishes that support the truism that Italian food is best when it's uncomplicated and made with superior products.
Pastas are less consistent. Divided between "old school" and "new school," the former are generally delicious and won't be too intimidating for anyone who grew up on Prince (the pasta) and Ragu. Gnocchi is sauced with a bright, meaty prime-rib Bolognese that somehow doesn't weigh down the fluffy dumplings. A bowl of scampi spaghetti is similarly vibrant, with fat, sweet shrimp, whole roasted garlic, and the slow burn of Calabrian chiles. A special, spaghetti with meatballs, however, arrives covered in a wan, watery sauce containing meatballs so overextended with bread crumbs only a pigeon could be happy with them.
The more creative pastas feature a greater variety of seasonal ingredients: Dough rolled with black pepper and twisted into strozzapreti has a dull slate color brightened by the fleeting presence of roasted ramps. Smoked mozzarella-stuffed ravioli with sweet peas are every bit as light and delicate as the aforementioned gnocchi, in contrast to nutty, ruddy farro orecchiette, which could use a bit more time in the pasta water.
Il Porcellino's signature dish, a long stretch of roasted pork belly, is significantly fattier, larger, and more enjoyably decadent than most versions of this cliche you see around town. It rests on a bed of cicerchia beans, relatives of the chickpea that contain low levels of diaminopropionic acid, an amino acid that if consumed in excess can cause a paralyzing neurological disease called lathyrism (it can also result in the withering of the buttocks). It's a risk worth taking, if only once, and a far better bet than the crispy-skinned porchetta special I gambled on one evening only to face down an insurmountable serving of dry, overly herbed pork with pickled fennel and a dandelion-green salad with hazelnuts that was probably the best thing I'd eaten at Il Porcellino. More familiar secondi such as whole grilled fish with green-olive salsa verde, brick chicken with giardiniera, and grilled octopus and beans round out the menu, along with daily specials featuring classics (lasagna, chicken Parmesan, steak fiorentina).
Cocktails are by recent Los Angeles transplant Julian Cox, who debuts three versions of the negroni along with more easy-drinking (if aggressively sweet) creations like a Paloma made with San Pellegrino soda and a mascarpone-washed gin drink that tastes like diluted pineapple juice. Older generations can unironically order daily wine specials served in wicker-wrapped carafes.
After-dinner sweets aren't highly valued in Italy, and that seems to be reflected on the unsurprising dessert menu: sugary mascarpone-piped doughnuts known as zuccherati, basic tiramisu, or chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo.
But just as in Florence, where tourists drop coins into the mouth of the boar, tourists (and locals alike) will no doubt flock to drop their coins into the LEYE maw, so that their crotchety Uncle Lou can dine happily next to their vegan nephew, and mom can sip a jug of wine to the smooth stylings of Matchbox 20. v