Chicago's Italian Food Scene Is Better Than Ever
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In a city like Chicago, where modern Italian food is as omnipresent as the wind, it’s refreshing to see old-school red sauce joints still holding their own amidst the fray of downtown hot spots. In addition to the classics, Italian cuisine is well represented across an array of neighborhoods and in a miscellany of styles, from handmade pasta institutions and house-milled flours to Little Italy fixtures and Avondale newcomers. Altogether, these places serve to prove that Italian food is the most versatile, dynamic cuisine in Chicago these days, and these spots are prime examples.
Coco Pazzo: Long before Chicago was flooded with the likes of RPM Italian, Il Porcellino, Acanto and Monteverde, there was Coco Pazzo. One of the longest-running and most iconic Italian spots in the city, the restaurant is still as revered and popular as the day it first emerged on the River North scene. It’s also proven to be quite the formative force, shaping up-and-coming chefs like Tony Priolo before he went on to put his own stamp on the local culinary scene with Piccolo Sogno. Renowned for its artisanal pastas, meticulous sauces, prime meats and pristine produce, Coco Pazzo maintains that bustling bistro feel it’s become prized for over the years, with convivial customers clamoring over platters of Tuscan-inspired fare. From baked eggplant with smoked Scamorza to wood-roasted octopus, the first bites at Coco Pazzo indicate a restaurant worth its salt. Be sure and save room for the star attraction: the pastas. Options run the gamut from squid ink spaghetti alla chitarra and dainty gnocchetti to chickea garganelli with rabbit ragu, pappardelle in wild boar ragu and linguini with Manila clams and white wine, to name a few highlights.
Davanti Enoteca: Scott Harris has arguably had more impact on Chicago’s Italian restaurant scene than any restaurateur or chef. Just look at the colossal empire he built out of Francesca’s, which is still a Wrigleyville keystone, as well as a wildly successful brand throughout the suburbs and beyond. But the singular place that embodies the notion of neighborhood Italian gem is the original Taylor Street outpost of Davanti Enoteca. It hustles and bustles with the energy of places typically seen in the Gold Coast or the West Loop, but with a much cozier and more accessible ambience. Outfitted like a giant rustic wine cellar, with hearty, soulful food to match, it’s easy to see its enduring appeal. Don’t miss the signature uova e tartufo, the famed truffle egg toast with fontina, asparagus and truffle oil. From here, graze your way through roasted beets with walnut butter, Brussels sprouts with prosciutto, wild mushroom pizza and orecchiette with pork sausage, rapini and Calabrian chilis.
Pisolino: This quaint Avondale eatery is one of Chicago’s ultimate Italian hidden gems. Located along a nondescript stretch of busy Belmont Avenue, Pisolino is quietly turning out some of the most beautiful pasta dishes, seasonal antipasti, pizzas and contemporary confections. Great for date nights or convening with friends looking to share, the ever-changing menu boasts the likes of fennel-orange salad, saffron-scented eggplant and celery caponata, cauliflower in rapini crema, masterful bucatini carbonara, semolina gnocchi and anchovy-strewn pizza with cured olives, capers, oregano and tomato puree.
Nellcote: Though not as flashy or buzzy as some of its Restaurant Row neighbors in the West Loop, Nellcote is still a drop-dead stunner, with food to match. An Italian-inspired game-changer for the neighborhood, the sprawling restaurant is best known for its house-filled flour, which it makes using Midwestern wheat on a daily basis. The fresh flour is used to make an assortment of seasonal pastas and pizzas, especially, like pumpkin agnolotti with bourbon-apple butter and quince; crab strozzapreti with green beans and cherry tomatoes; and short rib goulash pappardelle with onions, mushrooms, carrots and crema. For pizzas, there are classics like margherita, alongside modern stars like one with Granny Smith apples, bacon, blue cheese, charred red onions and rosemary.