There is no more mercurial restaurant than Gene & Georgetti, the storied River North Italian steak house that's a living set piece for a Chicago that dies a bit more every day. Sometimes it welcomes you with a drunk uncle's embrace, dirty martinis in each hand. Other times it acts like you haven't even arrived.
In a city where the economy is indebted to the average conventioneer's imperative to spend money in steak houses—and where restaurateurs are scrambling to redefine them—Gene & Georgetti refuses to change even as everything around it has.
But there's a price to pay for eating (let's face it) average steaks among the ghosts of those mobsters, politicians, and celebrities. High prices, occasionally indifferent service, and frequently exclusionary deference to regulars test the patience of even G&G admirers such as myself. And yet Gene & Georgetti doesn't give a fuck about your whiny Yelp reviews.
Even with that attitude it endures, having celebrated 75 years last summer, and the year before that expanding to Rosemont, the throbbing cardiomyopathic heart of suburban convention action.
Still, it's difficult to imagine this unapologetically dated concept opening on the edge of a sleepy city neighborhood, across the street from an Olive Garden and within arm's reach of the Kennedy in Old Irving Park.
Enter Arturo Aucaquizhpi. The 40-year-old native of Ecuador paid his dues for 20 years at Gene & Georgetti, starting out washing dishes and prepping salads. At some point he took on a second job at Piccolo Sogno, but in his last six years he was G&G's executive chef. That was until he noticed that the Mirabell, the old German restaurant two blocks away from his house—itself an artifact from forgotten Chicago—was for sale. Aucaquizhpi bought it, added an a, and removed the relentless Deutsch kitsch that covered the walls. Voila—an Ecuadoran-owned Italian steak house was born.
This is no carbon copy of Gene & Georgetti. They're always happy to see you at Mirabella. The first time I visited the chef dropped whatever business he had with the bartender and rushed over to open the door for me. Napkins are refolded when chairs are vacated. Servers in black vests with name tags leap at your every whim.
Aucaquizhpi credits Mario Navarro, his predecessor at Gene & Georgetti, with teaching him everything he knows. A quick look at his menu reveals it's been a faithful study. Nearly everything you could possibly order at G&G is on the menu at Mirabella, at significantly lower prices. Boost your lipids with the bacon with blue cheese dip or its ostensibly healthier alternative, a wedge salad tottering under a blue cheese avalanche, itself carpeted with crushed bacon. The signature Mirabella salad is a dead ringer for G&G's garbage salad: a pile of antipasto, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, and olives. Fried ravioli, pizza bread, baked clams, sausage and peppers—it's all there, with no concession given to the culinary currents of the day.
There's gratis bread service, crusty sliced loaves from D'Amato's with fresh ricotta, butter, and roasted garlic. Crispy cottage fries arrive with your steaks, while each entree comes with choice of soup or salad. Grandma wouldn't have it any other way.
A perfectly broiled bone-in rib eye sells for nearly $20 less in Irving Park than it does in River North. Same for the filet mignon, the New York strip, and the surf and turf. Have a yen for G&G's signature Chicken alla Joe? Here it's known as Chicken Mirabella, a juicy roasted bird smothered in sauteed peppers and pepperoncini. Of course the Mirabella treatment can be applied to steaks and sausage and probably your mostaccioli with marinara sauce if you wanted.
Mirabella offers the luxury of choice among limited templates, with eight veal dishes (not including the chop), eight chicken dishes, and shrimp three ways: fried, scampi, and de jonghe. Nearly everything that comes from the kitchen is executed with the precision you'd expect from a journeyman with decades of experience under his belt. The tangles of grilled calamari come in a soppable pool of garlicky olive-and-white-wine sauce laced with paprika. Ballers at Mirabella will order the filet Oscar, a buttery hunk of tenderloin smothered in crabmeat and chopped asparagus. Steaks ordered medium rare will arrive with thin, sharply delineated scabs of char, which give way to evenly rosy flesh.
Some 16 saucy and hugely portioned pastas make up the balance of the menu. Rigatoni country style is a generous pile of tubes wantonly smothered in tomato cream sauce and sweet peas. You can barely spot your spaghetti under the heap of Bolognese sauce. Meat and cheese ravioli, fettuccine primavera, spaghetti diavolo: there isn't a classic left out.
Mirabella isn't the second coming of a great steak house. The brightly lit bar could use a touch-up. The wine list is thin. Desserts are huge but pro forma. Still, it scratches an itch that none of the neo steak houses and ersatz supper clubs I've encountered in recent years has yet managed to reach. And it does so with warmth and without irony. Above all, it's what most people look for in a solid neighborhood restaurant. It serves good food at a decent value, with an easy welcome. And it's so wonderfully out of step with the prevailing winds of steak-house culture that it almost seems like it's new. v
Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect the name of the German restaurant Mirabella replaces. It was Mirabell, not Mirabelle.