For the past seven years I've spent way too much time being a businessman and not practicing my art," says Tony Mantuano, the acclaimed chef who--after ten years on his own--recently returned as executive chef to the kitchen at Spiaggia, the upscale restaurant he helped launch in 1984. "Artists don't own their own galleries--I shouldn't operate my own restaurant. I had to spend too much time doing stuff like negotiating valet parking contracts. Now I've got the freedom to do what I want to do."
In the 80s, he reminisces, "Spiaggia was groundbreaking. We had outrageous dishes then, like black pasta. We served tagliata, a steak we sliced, put on a plate, dressed with olive oil, lemon, black pepper, and rosemary, then put the plate back on the grill so the juices all ran together to make its own sauce. We had the first woodburning oven and made little pizzas. Other Italian restaurateurs told us we'd never make it unless we were more traditional--put some red sauce on things."
But Spiaggia did make it, and after six years as executive chef he decided it was time to move on. He left in 1990 to help his brother upgrade his trattoria, Mangia, in Kenosha. Mantuano and his wife, Cathy (a wine expert), returned to Chicago a year later to open Tuttaposto, in River North, a pan-Mediterranean restaurant featuring the food and wine of Italy, Provence, Spain, Greece, and the Middle East. Tuttaposto quickly earned critical and popular praise. "The concept was new to Chicago. I was proud of what we were doing," Mantuano says. "But after five years the lease was up and if we didn't get a better one we'd have to look at something else."
That something else turned out to be a partnership in a large space on the main floor of the NBC Tower. Mantuano Mediterranean Table, which opened in 1997, gained immediate critical recognition, but prices were high and the space--originally designed to house a pizza parlor--was inappropriate for fine dining. "A bad fit," says Mantuano. Volume never developed and his backers pressed him to lower prices and offer more traditional cuisine. "it wasn't what I wanted to do," he says now. In late 1999 he and his investors dissolved the relationship, but the majority partners tried to keep the name. Mantuano soon found himself in court--and under a gag order--fighting to reclaim the rights to his name. After three months he won and the space in NBC Tower was renamed Nicolina's.
At that point Mantuano was happy to get out of town. He and Cathy got a consulting gig that took them to Europe, where they did a lot of eating and a lot of studying. At the same time, however, Paul Bartolotta, the renowned Italian chef who took over at Spiaggia in 1990, was planning a move. Spiaggia had grown in stature under Bartolotta, who oversaw a major remodeling and had begun to get the kind of star ratings usually reserved for French restaurants.
Mantuano, who had maintained a good relationship with his former boss Larry Levy, jumped at the chance to revisit his old stomping ground. He returned from Europe and, on July 1, swung into action, reshaping an already excellent menu into an exemplar of contemporary Italian cuisine. "What we're doing is more modern than before," he says. "We're working at creating a world-class restaurant. We've got the luxury to seek out the best products and the luxury to charge for them. For a chef to be in that environment, you can't ask for much more. For weeks all I did was try to find this kind of product, that kind of product." He raves about "unbelievably fresh" loup de mer (sea bass) and sardines "24 hours out of the Mediterranean." He buys the highest grade olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar that's been nurtured like fine wine. He seeks out specialty produce, such as the micro-arugula from a small farm in Ohio that garnishes one of his elegant starters: smoked Sicilian swordfish (another new find) sliced into parchmentthin circles and drizzled with extra virgin Sicilian olive oil.
The seafood antipasto trio defines his new approach. On one oblong plate sits a mound of exquisite minced peekytoe crab dressed in a fine olive oil pressed with tangerine; next to it is a portion of perfectly done spaghettini topped with chives and a large dollop of osetra caviar, and next to that a fine tartare of yellowtail dressed with truffle oil and a surprising wisp of soy, to which tiny shavings of celery heart add the lightest crunch.
Mantuano dresses his lobster salad with lobster caviar; his foie gras gets pistachio oil and a sweet-tart Calabrian fig sauce; tender, buttered, fontina-filled pasta triangles are strewn with white truffles; a roasted scallop, big as a teacup, is mated with porcini mushrooms and a shard of Parmesan to create an astonishing meld of flavors. Sauces are herb purees and stock reductions. Steaks, cut from imported Piedmont beef, are still heartily flavored despite having half the calories and cholesterol of the domestic product--"guiltless beef," Mantuano calls it. All of this comes at world-class prices, of course entrees range from $29.50 to $38--but high art rarely comes cheap. Spiaggia is at 980 N. Michigan, 312-280-2750.
Penny's Noodle Shop plans to open its third location this month at 1542 N. Damen.
Renovations are under way at the Room, Jody Andre's (Tomboy) new French/American restaurant at 5900 N. Broadway, which is slated for a mid-December opening.
Bob Bee (Naniwa) opened Bob San, a stylish sushi bar and restaurant, at 1807 W. Division on September 20.
Cosi, a New Yorkbased chain of coffee shops featuring hearth-baked flatbread sandwiches, a full bar, and do-it-yourself s'mores recently opened two Chicago spots--one at 116 S. Michigan and another at 57 E. Grand; two more locations are scheduled to open this winter.
--LAURA LEVY SHATKIN
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.