Patricia Wells, author of Trattoria: Simple and Robust Fare Inspired by Small Family Restaurants of Italy, writes, “Homey, unpretentious, honest, and homemade, that’s the heart and soul of Italian trattoria cooking. Robust food–served without frills or fuss–makes up the body and substance of small family fare all over Italy.” The only problem is that most of the time you have to cross the Atlantic to get it. A number of Italian American restaurants, places like Maggianos and Dinnottos, and the Epcot-like monstrosities (e.g., Olive Garden) are little more than “red sauce joints” that are about as authentic as Taco Bell. Fortunately, there are two Italian trattorias in the Windy City that are worth mention: Anteprima and Riccardo’s.
When someone talks about a trattoria in Italy, she is referring to a place that isn’t nearly as formal as a ristorante; a place where the menu is so seasonal that the menu might be written on a chalk board; a place where service is casual, wine is cheap, prices are low, and where people know their clients. The places are rustic and some still have family-style tables. Chicago’s Anteprima is located in the Andersonville neighborhood and its fare is made with the finest ingredients, taking advantage of the local and organic producers in Wisconsin.
Unlike Maggiano’s Little Italy, the Italian-American style chain of restaurants located in Oakbrook and in the River North neighborhood in Chicago, the food at Anteprima favors quality over quantity. They don’t serve heaping mounds of spaghetti and meatballs. Their portions are reasonably sized and well balanced. Several friends from Avelino, South of Rome, once dined in Maggiano’s, and were appalled by the size of the portions. Carmen, in her typical blunt-Italian style, gave the waitress the look and told her that the pig trough full of pasta in front of her wasn’t fit for animals. Once can expect to find pasta stuffed with herb ricotta and chard in asparagus butter sauce, ravioli spinach pasta filled with porcini and in mushroom cream sauce with pine nuts, tagliatelle with duck ragù and with prosciutto ragù, grilled octopus, wood-grilled whole fish, orecchiette with lamb sausage (my favorite), and balsamic and honey-laced quail. The pasta is homemade, the salumi is artisanal, and the olives and bread are top shelf. The dish that really sent me into rapture was the panzanella, a poor-man’s summer classic from Tuscany. The dish consists of a salad of chunks of soaked stale bread, pomodoro tomatoes, red onions, fresh basil and dressed with fruity olive oil and vinegar. The evening my wife and I dined, it was mid-summer and we chose to eat on the back porch of the restaurant. It was a lovely evening, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
The second trattoria is Ricarrdo’s and it is located up on North Clark St. in Lincoln Park. The place sits right across the street from the scene of the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the day in 1929 when gunman from the Chicago Outfit, disguised as policemen, murdered seven members of the Irish bootlegger gang, run by George “Bugs” Moran. The neighborhood is a tranquil now and has a nice mix of bars, restaurants, small businesses, antique shops and apartments. Riccardo’s is small, intimate and deceptively spectacular. Again, this is not the garbage served at the Olive Garden, but rather a place that offers an excellent fish stew viareggina, veal and ricotta meat loaf, spaghetti and Manila clams, black mussels, fresh-homemade trofie pasta (Ligurian gnocchi) with a luminescent-green pesto sauce, fresh tortelloni, The mozzarella cheese is based on water buffalo milk, and one can tell the difference between the cheese-spread plastic that we purchase in the states,
I say that the place is deceptively spectacular because it is small, the atmosphere is laid back, and the chef looks like he might give you a hug. But quality runs in the family, Riccardo’s mother founded an upscale Tuscan restaurant in Milan and won recognition from the snobs at Le Cordon Bleu, quite a feat.
For an antipasto we had slices of salami, foccacia topped with prosciutto, robiola cheese and arugula and finished with a drizzle of fragrant truffle oil, and deep-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto. These were great, but I missed getting to order the grilled octopus, and potatoes, roasted red and yellow peppers, and peppery arugula.
Some won’t even recognize the names on the menu because lasagna, chicken Vesuvius, and fettuccini are nowhere to be found. On the places, where the names correspond to something we’ve all seen at the Olive Garden, like pasta e fagioli, the dish served in Ricarrdo’s is another animal altogether. For the soup or salad portion of the meal, I had a ribollita, an Italian vegetable soup with a broth that comes from boiling the rinds of parmesan cheese. For the main course, my wife ordered veal ravioli: it wasn’t the Chef’ Boyardee version by any means. These soft little pillows were made of fresh egg pasta, stuffed with roasted veal with nutmeg-dusted Parmesan cheese. I had the orecchiette with crumbled wild-boar sausage, garlicky rapini and pecorino cheese, topped with a delicious Bolognese meat sauce. The dessert menu offered us a selection of panna cotta, zuppa Inglese, sorbetti of different flavors, but in the end, we ordered espresso and fig cake.
We’ve already been back to both places a few times.
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=944