Of the making of Italian restaurants there seems to be no end. For the past few years in Chicago the trend among new establishments has been upscale--haute cuisine at prices that challenge, if not menace, the bank balance. The mom-and-pop eatery on whose lasagna, ravioli, and spaghetti with meatballs many of us cut our culinary teeth has, it would almost seem, become something of an endangered species.
Fortunately for those in search of honest home cooking at affordable prices, there's Pianetto's. This recently opened trattoria serves up bread that is homemade, pasta that is prepared fresh every day, though not on the premises, and top-notch meat and vegetable dishes. Sauces enhance rather than mask first-rate ingredients.
Though the restaurant is new, the family that runs it has been providing pizza to those in the know and in the neighborhood for four decades. The owners of Pat's Pizzeria, a fixture in the Sheffield-Belmont area, created Pianetto's by adding a kitchen and a dining room up a canopied stairway from the pizza joint. The dining room seats 54, and its amenities are simple--oilcloth-covered tables, paper napkins, and rough-and-ready cutlery. But there's ample space between tables, which have fresh flowers on them. The result is a welcome civility. An added attraction is genuinely friendly service and considerable enthusiasm about the food--with good reason.
Opposite the entranceway is a mural running nearly the entire length of the restaurant. Painted by Ron Eland--one of whose creations graces the Evergreen supermarket parking lot at Broadway and Belmont--it imaginatively regroups some of Chicago's most famous landmarks. The Art Institute partially obscures Marina Towers. Buckingham Fountain, set in Lake Michigan, bubbles energetically. Wrigley Field is sans lights, "8-8-88" (the date of its first night game) prominently displayed on its marquee. The Water Tower rubs shoulders with the Picasso, and the skyline, the el, and various neighborhood restaurants compete for our attention. Short on geographical accuracy, the painting is full of imagination and verve.
Almost as soon as one is seated, a complimentary plate of raw vegetables, delicately flavored with balsamic vinegar and fruity olive oil, is brought to the table, followed quickly by a crusty loaf of bread fresh from the pizza ovens downstairs. The bread and veggies were so good we were tempted to stop right there, but the menu beckoned. Of the half-dozen appetizers, we can recommend fried squid ($5.50), light, crisp, and just a touch oily, served with first-rate tomato-horseradish sauce, and insalata di frutti di mare ($8.95), shrimp, squid, and scallops on a bed of greens, drizzled with olive oil, lemon juice, and fresh herbs. Insalata spinaci ($5.25), fresh spinach, mushrooms, and sweet-red-onion slices, is accompanied by melted Bel Paese cheese in olive oil and lemon juice, which is spooned onto the greens at the table. It's hard to imagine anything more unctuous.
Polenta torte ($7.95), layers of cornmeal pudding separated by fontina and spinach, topped with melted Gorgonzola and bathed in tangy-sweet marinara, gladdened our tastebuds one evening, as did plump tortellini stuffed to bursting with minced chicken in an aromatic, leek-infused tomato-cream sauce ($8.50). Chewy potato gnocchi ($7.95)--parsley-flecked, smoky with prosciutto, and just moistened with onion cream--should also be mentioned.
Entrees come with a choice of soup or salad. Minestrone is always available, and stracciatella is an occasional special. The one time we had stracciatella, the broth was murky rather than clear because the egg had not properly separated into strands. The house salad is mostly romaine in a pleasantly tart balsamic-vinegar dressing.
Pollo abbruzzi ($9.25), chicken breast marinated with fresh herbs and then baked, delighted us by turning out to be moist and succulent. So did chicken Vesuvio ($8.50), one-half of a broiler cut up and baked in olive oil, garlic, and plenty of oregano. Served with roasted potatoes, peas, and red peppers, it was a highly satisfying version of the dish. Pork tenderloin with fresh rosemary ($9.95), as chewy and full-flavored a slab of meat as you are likely to find anywhere, was, to put it simply, superb. An overly salty, gruellike polenta served alongside added little, but did not detract either. Still-firm carrot and zucchini made better companions for the meat. Thin flank steak rolled around minced pork and ham, redolent of anise ($10.50), was less successful: the beef was somewhat overdone and tough, the filling and sauce overloaded with salt. Seven meatless pasta dishes and two salads are available for vegetarians.
Desserts run from $2.50 to $3.50 and change daily. The three we've sampled yielded two hits and one miss. The biggest hit, sampled on two occasions, was zuccotto, a good-sized slice of delicate sponge cake, moistened with Grand Marnier, surrounding a center of whipped cream, half of it plain and half chocolate-flavored, generously laden with chopped hazelnuts and bits of bittersweet chocolate. Strawberries balsamico needs superb fruit to reach the heights of which the dish is capable; the ones we were served were merely very good. Only tira mi su disappointed us--too heavy on the sugar, too skimpy on the cream, and made with thick slabs of pound cake instead of ladyfingers. Cinnamon-topped cappuccino ($2.25) could have been a bit more robust, but the dark, winy espresso ($1.75) could not be faulted.
The limited wine list seems to have been prepared with the budget-conscious in mind. The house libation, Villa Banfi, can be had for $2 a glass or $8 a carafe. We prefer the more balanced Pinot Grigio at $12 a bottle or the Chianti Classico at $13.
Pianetto's, 3114 N. Sheffield, is open Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 PM, to midnight Friday and Saturday. American Express, Visa, and Mastercard are accepted. For reservations, call 880-6507.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.