Old-School Italian | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader
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Bacchanalia

2413 S. Oakley | 773-254-6555

$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

For me, it was love at first bite of lobster ravioli: hand-rolled by a local gentleman, enfolding creamy crustacean, and transcending the cliche vodka sauce to achieve a fine balance of richness and acidity. "Seafood and Pasta" is a delicious dish of noodles, calamari, lobster, and shrimp with an encircling crown of mussels, in a light but intensely flavorful tomato broth. The veal saltimbocca pleased with thin slices, particularly hammy prosciutto, popping-fresh rosemary, and just a touch of cheese. The only weak link in the chain was Chicago's own chicken Vesuvio, but even it packed more flavor than you might find elsewhere. Pork chops Lugana are grilled, seasoned with Provencal herbs in the style of Lombardy, and draped with lightly sauteed herb-flecked peppers, onions, and potatoes. A Milanese Fernet-Branca was recommended as a postprandial digestive, and with a house-made cannoli, it proved a perfect way to "settle up." I liked the food here so much I literally busted a button on my trousers, a sad though strangely satisfying sensation. This is a cozy neighborhood place, with a bar and booths up front and a big old room in back. The friendly owner was tending bar, and service was simpatico, making us feel like regulars though we'd never stopped in before. —David Hammond

Bari Foods

1120 W. Grand | 312-666-0730

$

AMERICAN, ITALIAN | Monday-Friday 8 AM-6:30 PM, Saturday 8 AM-6 PM, Sunday 8 AM-1 PM

A grocery and deli (takeout only) on that stretch between Ashland and the Kennedy where West Grand suddenly goes Italian, Bari Foods makes a mean sandwich. On the abbreviated menu are subs stuffed with corned beef, roast beef, Italian sausage, or Italian deli meats, but a favorite is the fresh mozzarella and prosciutto sub. Available at nine or 12 inches, the sandwich packs ultrathin slices of melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto and hunks of squeaky cheese between the halves of a loaf of French bread crisp from the ovens next door at D'Amato's Bakery, and dresses it up with shredded lettuce, onion, and tomato, with a dash of oil and Italian seasoning. The deli case includes a choice of fish salad, antipasto, and a selection of olives and other delicacies like lupini beans and hand-canned giardiniera. For an easier side dish, ask for one of the monster dill pickles or grab a bag of chips on the way to the register. —Martha Bayne

Bella Notte

1374 W. Grand | 312-733-5136

$$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | open late: friday & saturday till 11:30

Bella Notte serves classically prepared southern Italian food in equally classic old-world style. Service is professional yet casual, and the small storefront space is intimate and relaxing. The menu offers primarily pasta, veal, and chicken in any number of preparations. More than a dozen pasta offerings range from simple rigatoni with vodka cream sauce to zuppa di pesce—a monstrous bowl of pasta that overflows with squid, clams, mussels, fish, and octopus in a tangy marinara sauce. Side dishes of greens (rapini, broccoli, spinach) sauteed with olive oil and garlic are also large enough to share. The only sour note in the place is struck by the ubiquitous Sinatra tunes. —Martha Bayne

Club Lago

331 W. Superior | 312-951-2849

$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | open late: friday & saturday till 11

Part corner tavern and part classic Italian restaurant, this long-standing River North lair, started by grandpa Gus in 1952, was decimated by an explosion in the building next door. Now brothers Guido and Giancarlo Nardini have reopened, and while the interior is renovated, the place retains the feeling of the old space: all customers are greeted by the owners or the bartender, and the atmosphere is chummy; everyone seems to know each other. The menu is approachable and affordable. Starters include lots of fried foods—calamari, zucchini, mushrooms—as well as shrimp cocktail and baked clams. Spaghetti, tortellini, manicotti, and several other pastas come with a choice of sauces. For the lighter palate the marinated calamari salad is refreshing, with cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, and tender pieces of squid in an Italian dressing. —Laura Levy Shatkin

D'Amato's #1 Italian and French Bakery

1124 W. Grand | 312-733-5456

$

bakery, ITALIAN, FRENCH | monday-saturday 7 Am-6:30 PM, sunday 7 AM-2 PM

Loaves of all shapes and sizes fill the display windows at this long-standing Italian bakery, supplier to many area restaurants and one of only two Chicago restaurants to still use a coal oven (the other, Coalfire, is just down the street). Every day the baker goes downstairs and loads the coal into a hopper above the lit stoker, which feeds the furnace. For the next five to seven hours it burns, until they close the chimneys and start baking with the heat retained in the bricks. Compared to conventionally baked bread, the difference, owner Victor D'Amato says, is "like, cook the steak in your house, cook the steak in a barbecue pit." (The D'Amato's down the street at 1332 W. Grand, owned by a different member of the family, uses a conventional oven.) Sesame-coated bread sticks are a specialty here; so is tomato bread, which also comes topped with olives or artichokes. Huge rounds of toasts (frizelles) are sold by the bag, and there's thick pizza by the slice and a variety of tantalizing cookies, including plain or chocolate-dipped biscotti. Note: D'Amato's is currently remodeling; retail operations have been moved across the street for a time. —Mike Sula

Filippo's

2211 N. Clybourn | 773-528-2211

$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: sunDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, MONDAY-THURSDAY TILL 11

Drawing from a fundamentally Neapolitan repertoire, chef Filippo Del Prete makes many of his own pastas and whips up a rich menu. Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and cheese worked well with a soft, fruity Sangiovese "Remole." Fettucine sozze was a fine blend of handmade squid-ink noodles and expertly prepared mussels and calamari dotted with cubes of eggplant. The flavors of two plump little bracioline (small steaks rolled with fat raisins and pine nuts and nestled in rigatoni) popped clearly through the tomato sauce, applied sparingly in traditional Italian style. Paellalike with peas, asparagus, and ham, the risotto fratta was wonderfully delicate, each kernel of Arborio rice distinct, and while some rehydrated porcini were soggy, the veal they topped was tender and slightly crisped. For dessert there's pastiera di grano, the traditional Easter cake made with lemon and bulgur; for sweeter tooths, there's zuppa inglese, liqueur-soaked sponge cake layered with pastry cream and lemon meringue. Around since 1993, Filippo's has a devoted local clientele and a friendly, well-informed staff. —David Hammond

Freddy's Pizzeria

1600 S. 61st, Cicero | 708-863-9289

$

PIZZA, ITALIAN, ICE CREAM | MONDAY-SATURDAY 10 AM-7 PM | CLOSED SUNDAY | cash only

The Zabar's of Cicero, Freddy's Pizza offers dry goods such as olive oil and pasta, but the real attraction is a display case of antipasti and hot dishes you can take away or eat on the crowded porch. Primi include a very fine chickpea salad, heart-challenging slices of salami in oil, and buffalo mozzarella with basil and tomato—the last, if you ask me, one of the clearest expressions of Italian culinary genius. I've sometimes thought I'd rather eat my toe than another plate of pasta Alfredo, but the rigatoni here is dressed with light cream, just a little cheese, and a few peas—I'd order it again, especially with some sauteed rapini on the side. The lasagna is quite delicate, house-made noodles layered softly over fluffy ricotta and discreetly covered with a chunky, conservatively seasoned tomato sauce. Rather than being cracker crisp, the pizza crust is like a good slice of puffy Italian loaf smeared with cheese and sausage (or any of seven or eight other options). The folks at Freddy's bake their breads in a range of shapes and sizes, and there's an array of Italian ices and gelati, ethereally creamy and, like most offerings here, made in the back. —David Hammond

La Luce

1393 W. Lake | 312-850-1900

$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY: DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

I thought I'd found a hidden gem. And first appearances were promising: the setting for this neighborhood Italian place, underneath the el tracks and across from a roof-perched water tower, is classic Chicago. There are just 13 tables or so in the handsome Schlitz-style corner tap with an Italian staff, and they're almost always packed—more good portents, you'd think. But grit—and we're talking do-not-risk-without-dental-insurance grit—in seven out of nine baked clams quickly dampened my hopes. None of the other dishes we sampled from the very standard menu was anything beyond edible: though I liked the red sauce, flank steak in bracciole with linguine was gristly, the sausage tough and oversalted, and the pasta overcooked; a halibut special was likewise overdone. Given the praise others have for this place, part of me feels I should give it a second chance. Trouble is, you couldn't pay me to. —Kate Schmidt

Mr. Beef

666 N. Orleans | 312-337-8500

$

Italian, American | Monday-Thursday 9:30 AM-7 PM; Friday 9:30 AM-5 PM, 10:30 PM-5 AM; Saturday 10 AM-3 PM, 10:30 PM-5 AM | Closed Sunday

My friend Rose used to say of a barbecue joint in Athens, Georgia, "That barbecue's good enough to make you want to slap yo' grandmama!" I never got what she meant until I visited Mr. Beef. Eat enough of these incredible Italian beef sandwiches and you'll be pummeling your granny, your brother, your best friend, and your significant other for good measure. Composed of half a French roll, a mound of thinly sliced beef, hot and sweet peppers, and a liberal dousing of jus, they are unspeakably delicious. There are other things on the menu, but who cares? The droves of people coming in the door aren't there for the chicken sandwich. Old-school digs and friendly yet cranky service lend that authentic Chicago vibe. —Chip Dudley

Pasta D'arte

6311 N. Milwaukee | 773-763-1181

$$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: TUESDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

This neighborhood restaurant serves superior regional dishes like bucatini manzo, hollow pasta served with a homey short-rib tomato sauce; even the bread—served with homemade giardiniera—stands out. House-made pastas include decadent lobster ravioli in a rich cream sauce and gnocchi with Gorgonzola and walnuts. An appetizer of tender long-stemmed grilled artichokes came piled with salad and good-quality prosciutto and Parmesan and drizzled with balsamic. Large family groups tend to fill the courtyard and narrow dining room, and there's a charming bar in the back of the house; service is polished and professional. Don't miss the house-made limoncello and gelato from Angelo Gelato. —Kate Schmidt

Sabatino's

4441 W. Irving Park | 773-283-8331

$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 12:30; WEDNESDAY TILL MIDNIGHT; MONDAY, TUESDAY, THURSDAY TILL 11:30

Tuxedo-clad hosts, strolling musicians, no-nonsense pours at the convivial bar—Sabatino's old-school Italian- American appeal is universal, as evidenced by the happy throngs. Warm, crusty loaves and addictive pizza bread come to the table in a blink of an eye, though go cautiously—dinners include soup (stracciatella with spinach is a favorite), salad, and a side of pasta. Terrific starters include garlicky shrimp de jonghe (a Chicago original), textbook baked clams, and bresaola, razor-thin air-cured beef with arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano. Pastas range from spaghetti with Angelo's special meat sauce to zuppa di mare, a lovely mix of lobster, scallops, shrimp, clams, calamari, and mussels in a light tomato sauce with linguine. For secondi fresh fish or veal, in particular veal saltimbocca, are good choices; me, I hit the classics, chicken Vesuvio, a veal chop, or thick-cut New York strip. Flaming tableside desserts are a specialty; here are anachronistic delights like baked Alaska and cherries jubilee. The interesting wine list ranges from damn reasonable to three rings and more (the ancient cash register at the bar totes a maximum of $49.99 at a time), and that's not to mention the veteran waitstaff, complimentary valet parking, Wednesday lobster special, and sing-along piano player on weekends. —Gary Wiviott

La Scarola

721 W. Grand | 312-243-1740

$$$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: MONDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11

Soup or salad? The eternal quandary. But at La Scarola it's one easily resolved with an order of escarole soup, a tasty broth glistening with golden globules of garlic and tender, slightly bitter leaves. Or you might try the hearty pasta e fagioli. The clams Mondelli here were some of the best I can remember: very meaty, with relatively light breading and a superb tomato sauce. Gamberi risotto—shrimp wrapped in prosciutto with artichoke hearts—was sprinkled with sun-dried tomatoes for a likable contrast to the lush risotto, and eggplant parmigiana was tender and delicious. You can get veal here in several preparations, but with meat this good, less is more—the simple chop was outstanding. There's a full bar, and the wine list has many bottles in the $30 range. This is a fun restaurant: the bustling front end looks a lot like a storefront clam joint in New York's Little Italy, and they pack 'em in most nights of the week. —David Hammond

Tufano's Vernon Park Tap

1073 W. Vernon Park Pl. | 312-733-3393

$

ITALIAN | LUNCH: TUESDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | closed monday | OPEN LATE: friday & SATURDAY TILL 11 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

Serving the neighborhood since 1930, this bright and bustling landmark is one of the last parcels of the original Little Italy. Many of the cliches of Italian-American red sauce joints are in evidence—celeb headshots, wine in water glasses—but long-standing customers give the place a genuine feeling that the weary meatballerias on Taylor Street can't muster. Meals and wine can be ordered family style off blackboards on the walls, and huge pasta plates can be halved to accommodate secondi like crispy lemon chicken, roasted and buried in a mountain of fried potatoes. Warhorse waitresses keep things moving, and if you break the ice at the bar it can be one of the more convivial places around to wait for a table. —Mike Sula

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