3913 N. Sheridan
Every Italian restaurant likes to claim it's the real thing, but if you believe the waiter we had at Pizza Rustica, a clean, bright, simply decorated spot just north of Wrigley Field, all the other contenders are fooling themselves. After a recent visit, I'm inclined to agree. The essence of authenticity, he said, is found in absolutely fresh ingredients and in simple execution, both of which characterized our meal. The caprese salad we started with, for instance, featured huge slices of fresh mozzarella and tomato finished with a misting of good olive oil. It's the kind of dish you find everywhere, but rarely does it taste this good--light, creamy, and with a faint echo of olive. The minestrone, too, seemed made to order, with al dente vegetables in a finely spiced tomato broth. For our entrees we ordered half a pizza and a linguine dish, both of which were excellent. The pizza is thin crust, light, notably crispy, and golden brown, and the toppings--thinly sliced potatoes, fresh rosemary, olive oil, and cheese--decorated the surface without compromising its crackerlike integrity. The pasta was equally good, al dente and tossed with a conservative ladle of tomato cream sauce that highlighted the freshness of the noodles. The sauce tasted like tomatoes and cream with a dash of salt and had none of the cloying sweetness or overspicing that ruins similar attempts. The desserts were great too--the panna cotta, with flecks of vanilla bean and a drizzle of caramel sauce, was subtle, milky, and barely sweet. Pizza Rustica is absurdly cheap: most pasta dishes are between $7 and $8, half a pizza costs about $10, and dessert was $3.50. --Chip Dudley
Tufano's Vernon Park Tap
1073 W. Vernon Park
Serving the neighborhood since 1930, Tufano's Vernon Park Tap is one of the last morsels of the original Little Italy that UIC hasn't swallowed up. Many of the cliches of Italian-American red-sauce joints are in evidence at this bright and bustling landmark--autographed celeb head shots, wine in water glasses--but long-standing customer loyalties give the place a genuine feel that the weary meatballerias on Taylor Street can't muster. Meals and wine can be ordered family style off blackboards on the walls, and though it'll never be mistaken for a Roman trattoria, if you prefer to pretend, a mound of lightly fried calamari makes a flavorful antipasti and huge pasta plates can be halved to accommodate meatier secondi like crispy lemon chicken, roasted and buried in a mountain of fried potatoes. The place packs 'em in on weekend nights, but 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
410 Circle Ave., Forest Park
Chef Gaetano Di Benedetto, a member of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (a cultural institution of the Republic of Italy), serves magnificent traditional regional Italian cuisine at La Piazza, a fun, relaxed place decorated with playful illusionist murals and filled with as many sweats as suits. Dinner starts with superb fresh-from-the-oven focaccia (we had rosemary and sea salt) and a side of chickpea spread made with olive oil, lemon, garlic, and black pepper, as delicious as it is simple. We enjoyed a range of dishes, including involtini di melanzane, lightly fried eggplant coiled around a mixture of ricotta and Parmesan that achieves a complex balance of astringency and milky alkalinity, and a risotto made with starch-rich Carnaroli rice and lush goat cheese whose creaminess complemented the snap of fresh sweet red pepper and carrot. There are a number of well-executed fusion selections on the menu as well. Soft-shell crab done tempura style with arugula and watermelon is a refreshing combination of sweet seafood, bitter leaf, and moist fruit--and it looks fantastic on the plate, with a piece of toasted capellini sticking out of a hunk of melon like an antenna. For dessert consider the homemade vanilla ice cream drizzled with 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. The Chef's Choice meal is $45, and the menu says it includes four courses, but we got a lot more than that--dishes vary in kind and number based on what's available on any given day. Wine is available by glass, quartino (small carafe), or bottle; the list includes a good Nero D'Avila ($38) and a zin in the mid-30s. You can also get Spanish and Sicilian sangria, served in frosty goblets; imported beer (including the Belgian Hoegaarden and Stella Artois, both of which work well with piquant foods); and one rather unexpected cheap domestic brand (Rolling Rock). --David Hammond
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.