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Restaurant Tours: three in a sea of trattorias

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Of course Italian food can be great. But that doesn't explain the flood tide of Italian restaurants, from authentic trattorias and ristorantes to retro-red-sauce re-creations, that have opened here in the past half dozen years.

Some of the best joints have never caught on big. Some, like Centro and Mia Francesca, are wildly popular but struggle nonetheless just to maintain a level of mediocrity. Some, like Coco Pazzo, are good enough but insanely overpriced. And though an upscale place like Bice may actually be worth a splurge, I tend to think a good Italian meal shouldn't require you to take out a mortgage.

I'm quite content, when doing the Italian thing, to pick my pasta in a few friendly trattorias ranging in age from a few months to five years. The youngest is the bustling, bilevel La Risotteria Nord, on Clark near Fullerton, which is so authentic you have to slice through the accents of everyone from the greeter to the busboys. The place features, as you might guess, nearly two dozen risottos. That's the dish made by slowly simmering rice and broth (adding a little liquid at a time), then working in anything from mushrooms to mixed veggies to meat or seafood. What results is a full-flavored dish of creamy rice with just a hint of crunch.

My companion and I had a terrific version with earthy, rich porcini mushrooms and a touch of truffle oil and cheese ($10.95), plus another with mixed seafood, including shrimp and scallops, and a very light marinara sauce, garnished with some baby clams and mussels in the shell ($13.95). Both were exemplary versions of a dish that can easily be botched and usually is.

A neat appetizer, bombette ripiene is also made of rice, this time molded into a ball, given a minimal stuffing of beef and peas, then breaded and sauteed to a light crisp. A gentle tomato-based sauce tops it off ($3.25 and $5.95). Also good, but very stingy portions for either price ($5.95 and $11.95), were the mixed grilled vegetables--squash, onion, eggplant, red and green peppers, zucchini--hit with sweet-tart balsamic vinegar.

Some of the entrees get up there in price too, like the osso buco in an herby sauce of finely diced vegetables, accompanied by a couple squares of grilled polenta ($18.95)--though the portion is generous and the production first-rate. Still, for $9.95 to $11.95 you can get a choice of nine pastas to mix and match with any of eight sauces.

A bit more than a year ago Pane Caldo opened on East Walton near Michigan as a combination bakery and restaurant. They still bake their own bread, but the display case has given way to more tables in this long, narrow, minimalist room where the dishes are surprisingly good and the tariff definitely not Gold Coast.

Starters include an unusual and rewarding sauteed dumpling of duck and chicken, coarsely ground and bedded down on an onion marmalade sharpened with just a hint of vinegar ($4.75). There's also a perfectly cooked, well-seasoned melange of grilled shrimp and calamari bathed in olive oil to mellow the light char ($7.50).

There are three risottos here ($10.25-$13.50), but the gnocchi are especially worth trying. These marble-size dumplings of pureed potato and flour are poached to just the right level of elasticity, then glazed with a tomato sauce given just the right pungency with gorgonzola, the Italian blue cheese ($7.25). Among the pastas we were well impressed with were the tender ravioli filled with snippets of lobster and bathed in a sauce of saffron cream ($11.75).

The osso buco here runs $11.95, and though the portion isn't as large as at La Risotteria, it certainly is sufficient. The flavor is still there, the braised veal shank moist and tender, and the bone yields a healthy dollop of marrow--the real reason for ordering this dish. A couple of squares of crisply grilled polenta add crunch to the mix.

On our most recent visit the fish of the day was a fine slab of swordfish steak, showing a light char from a grilling that went on a moment too long and made it a little too soft ($14.95). But the flavor was just right, enhanced by a simple but lovely sauce of capers and lemon with chopped shrimp tossed in. Snow peas were an unexpected but welcome accompaniment. I can also recommend the roasted duck breast touched lightly with a sauce of honey and balsamic vinegar ($13.50).

Trattoria Gianni, at five years the senior citizen of this bunch, continues to please because it keeps making interesting changes and embellishments. Located on Halsted near the Steppenwolf and Royal George theaters, it's often packed during the preshow hour but comfortable after eight.

If you like squid but are tired of fried calamari, sample the spring-menu special of squid rings lightly sauteed with an herb-flecked white-wine sauce ($6.50). A daily special recently featured terrific grilled calamari with a generous sampling of octopus, perfectly tenderized and drenched in olive oil perfumed with basil and oregano ($6.95).

The basic fried calamari ($5.95) certainly rates well too, but an even more interesting seafood starter is sauteed scallops under a mantle of finely chopped porcini mushrooms with chopped tomato and a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar, all on a bed of fresh arugula ($6.95).

The pasta from the spring menu is really hearty. The minced duck breast in a fresh tomato sauce with basil, served over hefty fettuccine noodles, is great even if you don't ordinarily like duck ($11.50). There's usually only one risotto at Trattoria Gianni, served as a daily special. The spring menu adds another, which sounds odd but works amazingly well. Chunks of fresh salmon are worked into the rice mix, and halved strawberries are strewn over it, giving just the faintest hints of sweetness and acid that play well against the fish ($12.95).

The standard menu offers a few simple grilled or sauteed entrees served with a minimum of sauce, such as the grilled marinated chicken breast scented with fresh herbs and served with mixed vegetables ($12.95) and the highest-priced item, the grilled veal chop ($16.95).

La Risotteria Nord, 2324 N. Clark, is open 5 to 11 Friday and Saturday and 5 to 10:30 Sunday through Thursday; call 348-2106. Pane Caldo, 72 E. Walton, is open 11 to 11 Friday, 8 to 11 Saturday, 9 to 10:30 Sunday, and 11 to 10:30 Monday through Thursday; call 649-0055. Trattoria Gianni, 1711 N. Halsted, is open 11:30 to 2:30 and 5 to 11 Friday, 5 to 11:30 Saturday, 12 to 3 and 4 to 10 Sunday, and 11:30 to 2:30 and 5 to 11 Tuesday through Thursday; call 266-1976.

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