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Restaurant Tours: new hope for Riccardo's addicts

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I've been going to Riccardo's longer than anywhere in the city except Wrigley Field, whose bleachers were introduced to my butt in 1938. For Riccardo's it was 1950, a year before I was old enough to drink, but they served me a glass of red wine with my spaghetti anyway. Since then, as a hangout and more than occasionally as a dining room, Ric's has disappointed me a lot less than the multifarious occupants of Wrigley Field--except for when the Bears used to play there.

This joint has led multiple lives since it was founded at the foot of Rush Street in 1934 by Ric Riccardo the elder. A painter and cultural maven, he adorned its walls with his own work and that of fellow artists. Writers, too, made it kind of a home, and later musicians--notably operatic singers, to whose trade Ric the younger aspired.

In 1947 Ric the elder installed a massive palette-shaped bar and decorated the back wall with paintings by seven of the city's most famous artists, each painting representing one of the arts.

In the early 50s, when I lived just around the corner, young Ric spent a lot of time trying to get some kind of broad-based arts organization off the ground; it never happened. Then his dad died in 1954 and he became a reluctant restaurateur/saloon keeper, still yearning for the stage.

During all those years, Riccardo's offered one of the very few outdoor cafes in town. It wasn't until the 70s that the City Council permitted outdoor service almost anywhere.

The restaurant proper--two rooms right off the barroom--was never a grand place, never a place to drive foodies wild. But it was always a good, reliable Italian eatery serving comfort food to hundreds of loyalists and hosts of visiting celebrities.

In the 60s it became the city's media bar and dining room. Right after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Ron Dorfman called a meeting in the upstairs room where Ric held his arts meetings and formed the Chicago Journalism Review, which lasted into the mid-70s and is missed now more than ever.

By 1974 Ric's personal fortunes had taken a dive. He took down a couple of the more famous bar paintings and sold the rest of the joint to Nick Angelos and his brother Bill, a pair of Greek restaurateurs. In 1977 Ric gagged on a chunk of steak in a southwest restaurant and choked to death. They say a Heimlich would have saved him.

Declining dinner business here and elsewhere in the Loop environs, not to mention young newspeople's taste for alcohol, caused the Angelos brothers to try to sell Riccardo's in 1989--but the purchasers couldn't put things together and soon forfeited their earnest money, said to be $75,000, which Nick used to remodel the place and keep it going.

But last year the brothers sold it off to Ted Mouzakeotis, a longtime patron who has been in the restaurant business, and Robert Keck Jr., a lawyer. They shuttered the place, opened the upstairs barroom for the regulars, and a couple of months later unveiled the new Riccardo's.

The new decor features somewhat warmer earth tones, a few more tables in the bar, and a huge arched mural in place of the lively arts paintings--three of which now occupy the back dining room.

The new mural is sort of psycho-historical, featuring an imaginary scene upstairs in Ric the elder's apartment-studio. There, around the table, are Ric, Ivan Albright, whose painting was carried off by young Ric, and a very young Studs Terkel, who continues to inhabit the place. Off in a corner is a slouching Nelson Algren, who used to come in every so often, and elsewhere at the table are Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali, whose visits to the place have not been documented although a circumstantial case can be made for their presence.

The artwork in the two dining rooms includes some decent new stuff, plus the original murals and ceiling frescoes perpetrated by the original Ric. Jose Vicens, one of planet earth's finer bartenders, still presides over the pouring.

After four erratic months and three menu changes, including one of the worst pieces of tuna steak I have ever eaten, I can now pronounce the food acceptable--some dishes even good or better. The new menu, laudably, holds the line on prices. Top entree is an above-average veal chop with sun-dried tomato cream sauce at $16.95, but most entrees run $9.95-$12.95. (Early prices bordered on the outrageous.)

Chef Jonathon Draper, keeping things generally Italianate, has settled in on the things he does best, including five little pizzas priced $5.25-$5.95--all good, but especially the spinach-gorgonzola job with sun-dried tomatoes ($5.50).

He also offers up ten pastas, any of which can be had in half or full portions. He has a heavy hand with garlic, which seems to suffuse everything from pizzas to pastas to entrees, but who would complain about that? Certainly not me.

Linguine with white clam sauce is a deep, hearty brew ($4.95, $9.95) worthy of the original Ric's; subtler and of genuine interest is the basil fettuccine with duck and mushroom chunks, bound by a green peppercorn sauce ($5.50, $10.95).

What might have been a brilliant dish--potato gnocchi with smoked chicken in a smoked chicken sauce--was marred by tough, dense gnocchi and was overly drenched in sauce, but the basic flavors were excellent ($5.50, $10.95).

Draper's lovely smoked chicken was put to fine use in an appetizer, where it was laid upon a trio of polenta footballs and draped with mascarpone cheese sauce ($5.50). A baked pastry "purse" filled with wild mushrooms was decent enough, but so saturated with an overseasoned mixed-veggie sauce that it didn't permit the full flavors to come through.

The fried calamari appetizer ($4.95) is generally crisp and tender enough to satisfy. Beef carpaccio ($5.50) was too thin and translucent to retain much flavor. There's a lot of rich flavor, however, in the warm spinach salad with a rich melting of goat cheese atop ($5.50).

Among the entrees, both the aforementioned veal chop and the highly interesting brace of pork chops with apple-caraway sauce ($10.95) can be recommended, the latter garnished with savory Tuscan potato salad.

No fish is on the printed menu, but some is usually available as a special. As noted, my first tuna steak was disastrous; I ordered one for lunch a couple of months ago, and though the flavor was acceptable it wasn't cooked rare as ordered. Last visit I gave it one more chance and it had both good flavor and nearly the desired degree of rareness ($16.95). OK, so this ain't a fish restaurant.

The beat still goes on at the bar, accompanied some evenings by live piano music. Those of us who drink here can again comfortably move on to the dining room when hunger strikes--and prospective new diners may indeed find the same comfort. It was never, as I said, an extraordinary culinary experience, but there's still something to be said for slightly offbeat adequacy.

Riccardo's, 437 N. Rush, 787-2874, is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 AM to 3 PM, and for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 10 PM and Friday and Saturday to 11 PM. The bar is open daily from 11:30 AM to 1 AM. Later this month, dinner hours Wednesday through Saturday will be extended to midnight. Closed Sunday.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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