Tucked into what used to be an antique store just off Armitage in Bucktown, the aptly named Antico is by all appearances a typical neighborhood restaurant. Yet the unassuming facade, echoed inside by exposed-brick walls unadorned by a single framed print or painting, masks a crack staff and a kitchen that understands when to push a dish forward and when to hang back and let the food present itself—all under the direction of Trinna Schramm, a former expediter at Alinea, and chef-owner Brad Schlieder, a veteran of A Tavola. No wonder that, even as it looks like a gleaming vintage Hudson parked on a Chicago side street, it has a NASCAR engine under the hood.
The kitchen struts its stuff with appetizers and house-made pastas, then simply allows meat and fish to carry the entrees. Cuttlefish fritti—thick ribbons of fish lightly battered and served with an explosive fried lemon wedge—beat any calamari I'd ever had, and an octopus special, served over a bed of arugula and flat-leaf parsley, had its sharpness undercut by a light, sweet dressing. Sauteed mushrooms served over polenta, now a special, will be added to the regular menu when the local supply becomes more reliable, and it's a knockout—rich and buttery. House-made sausages were equally good, with nodules of fennel, complemented in sweet-and-savory fashion by braised red cabbage tanged with mustard and a mostarda of dried apricot. Risotto Milanese had a light, citrusy flavor, balanced by Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the spaghetti con vogole had clams almost as fresh as the pasta. Yet, as at A Tavola, the stars were the gnocchi, served three ways on any given night; we opted for the brown butter and sage, crispy fried leaves of the herb providing a light crunch to pasta that melted in the mouth.
A special of fried grouper rested on its own flavors, complemented by seasonal and especially fresh asparagus tinged with lemon. Amarone-braised short ribs fell off the bone, the sauce soaking into a shallow pool of saffron polenta. Meaty Colorado lamb chops were likewise perfectly prepared, though not so well served by their accompaniment, a slab of sliced potatoes Parmigiano gratin.
That was the only misstep, however. The intimate space, seating about 50, made room for valet stroller parking for the young family that got in at the beginning of dinner hours, as well as a party of 17 that arrived not long after we were seated. Through it all, the kitchen and a trio of servers purred on without a hiccup, and although the raw brick walls seemed to echo at first, it never got too noisy to mar a quiet conversation across the table. The service was friendly and attentive in a way one expects from a neighborhood restaurant, with a lack of ostentation. A patio out back, where a garden already grows, will soon provide additional al fresco seating.
During the day, Antico functions as a cafe, with pastries and fresh coffee roasted on the premises. In fact, locals kept straggling in for a cup to go throughout our dinner. The thick-capped cappuccino I tried washed down a panna cotta with red-wine sauce that put flan to shame.
As we headed out on one occasion, we found a couple sipping wine as they sat on one of the benches out front. They were perhaps pushing the spring a bit—the temperature couldn't have been much over 50—but why not with a place this inviting? Waiting diners will no doubt fight to claim those seats by the time summer finally arrives.