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Restaurant Tours: Sole Mio's shining start

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Chicago has more than its share of wonderful Italian restaurants, from the elegant and innovative to the down-home and cozy, but a new entry threatens to eclipse them all. In a dazzling debut, Sole Mio rushes to the first rank of Chicago's Italian kitchens.

Sole Mio's success shouldn't be surprising--it's got good bloodlines. Sole Mio is owned and operated by Dennis Terczak and Jennifer Newbury. He was the founding chef at Avanzare, Chicago's benchmark Italian restaurant, and together they opened Amerique. Now they've combined again, on an exciting restaurant whose excellent food is priced more than reasonably for the quality. Terczak creates the menu, provides overall supervision of the kitchen, and does some of the cooking, as does Newbury. In charge of the kitchen day to day is Paul LoDuca, who worked with Terczak at Avanzare and later was sous-chef at Scoozi.

Sole Mio is rooted in the cooking of northern Italy, aiming for a more diversified, more balanced cuisine than that of the common neighborhood Italian restaurant. Its dishes have plenty of flavor, and portions are large--no nouvelle Italian for this kitchen--but the emphasis is on finesse rather than force. As Newbury puts it, "Each dish has a lot of flavors, but we attempt to balance them so that you can taste several of them in a single bite. You can't do that if the sauce is strongly tomatoey or you're contending with huge globs of cheese."

Sole Mio's pizzas are a good example of its approach to Italian cuisine. Although the half dozen eight-inch pizzas ($5-$7) are sometimes ordered as an intermediate course, they are so light they can also be eaten before the meal. The crust is puffier than in thin-crust pizzas, not as dense as in thick-crust, a worthy setting for a large assortment of innovative toppings. If there's a tomato sauce, it's made with fresh tomatoes, which are lighter, provide more texture, and permit delicate flavors to come through. The pizza special the night we were there--shiitake, portobello, and oyster mushrooms, fresh herbs, fontina cheese, and tomato sauce--evinced some subtle tastes and textures. The same principle applies to the roast garlic pizza. Roasting the garlic removes its pungency, leaving a mellow hint of flavor nicely set off by grilled bermuda onion, pancetta, mozzarella, and Parmesan bechamel.

There are eight appetizers on the regular menu and another couple as specials. From the menu we chose pan-fried polenta with prunes marinated in grappa ($4.95), a dish unlike any I've ever had before. Polenta is basically boiled cornmeal, a traditional dish in some parts of Italy; it can be married to a wide range of flavors. At Avanzare, Terczak created a dish of polenta topped with goat cheese. Here, he and LoDuca worked a long time to come up with something equally dramatic. The result: a dish that features polenta cut into triangles and delicately complemented by sweet, diced prunes and a marsala sauce.

Even better was another regular appetizer, grilled eggplant ($4.95). This dish resembles one of the staples of southern Italian cooking, eggplant parmigiana, but here the eggplant is grilled rather than fried, and its layers of eggplant and fresh tomatoes are topped with smoky scarmorza instead of parmesan. The appetizer special we chose was a treat for the eyes. Uovoletti ($5.95, "little eggs" in Italian) is a salad featuring trompe l'oeil eggs: homemade mozzarella in the shape of eggs, with yellow tomatoes standing in for the yolks, served over endive and roasted peppers in a vinaigrette.

Sole Mio offers more than a half-dozen pastas, available in half or full portions. We chose a couple of half portions for our pasta course. Black ink fettuccine with squid in a tomato sauce ($5.95, $9.95 for a full portion) is a fanciful dish in which the homemade fettuccine is dyed with the squid's ink, then served with squid, fresh tomatoes, and pepper flakes. This dish risks too many strong flavors, but all in all the spiciness and the seafood balance well and the dish works. Pagliacci ($5.95, $9.95) is so named because the stuffed conical spinach pasta is said to resemble a green Italian clown hat. (I didn't see the resemblance, but that may be because the dish disappeared fast in a blur of flashing forks.) The homemade pasta is filled with veal and served in a rich Gorgonzola zabaglione sauce.

There are a dozen or so entrees, ranging from julienned veal liver with artichokes to sauteed chicken breast with tuna sauce and grilled halibut with roasted garlic-tomato sauce. We tried one of the simple entrees, grilled chicken ($9.95), and found it the only disappointment of the evening. The portion was large and the bird cooked perfectly--moist within, crisp on the outside--but somehow the flavorings promised on the menu--garlic, anchovy, chilies, and olive oil--got lost along the way.

Coffee comes with wonderful complimentary chocolate cream cookies, very much like rich brownies still soft in the middle.

Dessert possibilities range from the sensibly light--granita, a kind of Italian sno-cone flavored with campari and grapefruit--to a sinfully rich cannoli, one of the restaurant's signature dishes. Cannoli at Sole Mio is far more elaborate than you'll find elsewhere. The pastry is a fresh, homemade wafer cone, unlike the common deep-fried cylinder, and it's filled at the last minute (no sitting around to get soggy) with a mixture of ricotta and mascarpone, a rich Italian version of cream cheese. It's served in two sauces: pistachio, to pick up the pistachio baked into the cone, and raspberry for tartness. A simple Italian standby at Sole Mio is beautiful, elaborate, and almost too much for one person.

The service and the decor at Sole Mio are as good as the food. Servers describe the food accurately and lovingly. Cream walls, white curtains, and dark wood predominate in the handsome, understated decor. Arty, out-of-focus black-and-white photographs of the old country provide the only reminder of the restaurant's ethnic origins.

The price for all this is quite reasonable. Our table of three ate a prodigious amount--the two dieters in the group immediately fell off the wagon when confronted with Sole Mio's spectacular offerings--but the cost for everything, with wine, tax, and tip included, was about $40 a person.

New restaurants usually take months to shake down. Sole Mio, open just a few weeks the evening we were there, seems to have burst out of the blocks, plagued by no glitches in the kitchen or in the front. Located at 917 W. Armitage (the space formerly occupied by Hibbeler's), Sole Mio is open every day of the week from 5 PM to midnight (but call ahead if it's late, to guard against the occasional early closing on a slow night). They accept all major credit cards, they don't take reservations, and there's valet parking. 477-5858.

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

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