In Chicago, Italian restaurants abound, but how many of them are truly old school? How many of them have generations of the same family making the same dishes culled from their great-grandmothers? Are the portions large enough to be used as a blanket? Is the atmosphere just as welcoming to guests in black tie and guests in blue jeans? Is the decor itself a throwback—dark wood paneling; paintings of the homeland; a multitude of photos of nieces and nephews, grandparents and great-uncles, all posing with Dennis Farina?
Taking all of these factors into account, here are 10 of Chicago’s old-school-iest Italian restaurants, from least old school to most old school.
10. Balena (Lincoln Park | 1633 N. Halsted St.)
This might be the newest eatery on the list (which is why it’s No. 10), but it has earned accolades from Bon Appétit and the Tribune, as well as one Bib Gourmand. And Chef Chris Pandel of The Bristol infuses an Old-World feel into this venture, not only with the ingredients and cooking techniques but also with ultracomfortable decor as well.
Generations: 1 | Food-coma conduciveness: 5 | Throwback decor: 5 | Casual-formal mix: 6
9. La Fontanella (Pilsen | 2414 S. Oakley Ave.)
People flock to Taylor Street, but this little sliver of Oakley Avenue is known as Heart of Chicago or Heart of Italy, and if you’re looking for classic Italian, you can’t go wrong by hitting up any of the restaurants here. But La Fontanella is a haunt of former hack and student of life Dmitry Samarov, who named La Fontanella as his favorite in the city: “It's a great spot to order some veal and pasta and linger over a bottle of wine or two.”
Generations: 9 | Food-coma conduciveness: 9 | Throwback decor: 8 | Casual-formal mix: 6
8. Vito & Nick’s (8433 S. Pulaski Rd.)
Vito & Nick’s was the winner of our March restaurant bracket and thus named Chicago’s Most Chicago Restaurant. Helping it keep its old-school Italian cred are an awning in the colors of the Italian flag, the restaurant’s lineage scrawled in the cement out front, and a staff that’s five generations deep.
Generations: 10 | Food-coma conduciveness: 6 | Throwback decor: 8 | Casual-formal mix: 4
7. La Lucé (West Loop | 1393 W. Lake St.)
Housed in an 1892 Queen Anne Victorian, this place is a throwback inside and out. Its menu of northern Italian cuisine is highlighted by housemade pasta dishes, and the decor is just as timeless. A meat locker retains its original milk-glass panels, a wood-burning stove smolders in one corner, and above, a tin ceiling contemplates how you’d look in cement shoes.
Generations: 7 | Food-coma conduciveness: 8 | Throwback decor: 10 | Casual-formal mix: 6
6. Tufano's Vernon Park Tap (University Village | 1073 W. Vernon Park Pl.)
If you visited this spot in the '80s, you might have seen three generations of the DiBuono-Tufano family cooking in the kitchen. Since the 1930s, the same family has kept it running smoothly, though now it’s run by just two generations. A recipient of the James Beard America’s Classics Award in 2008, the restaurant’s signature dishes include eggplant parmesan and sausage and peppers.
Generations: 10 | Food-coma conduciveness: 7 | Throwback decor: 6 | Casual-formal mix: 6
5. Bacchanalia (Heart of Chicago | 2413 S. Oakley Ave.)
Another Heart of Chicago eatery, this is a truly family-run joint, with mama Noemi hand-forming ravioli—to the specifications of an old family recipe—while daughter Paula and son Dante run the restaurant.
Generations: 9 | Food-coma conduciveness: 8 | Throwback decor: 8 | Casual-formal mix: 8
4. La Scarola (River West | 721 W. Grand Ave.)
No matter what the weather, winding ivy and loads of hanging plants give La Scarola the feel of an outdoor trattoria. Another charming detail are the drawings that Chef Armando creates every day on his favorite table.
Generations: 5 | Food-coma conduciveness: 8 | Throwback decor: 9 | Casual-formal mix: 7
3. Orso’s (Old Town | 1401 N. Wells St.)
One of Old Town’s original restaurants from before the neighborhood was called Old Town. As far as decor, all other Italian spots should take note: glittering chandeliers, curved tin ceilings, mottled walls behind the photographs. And it grows grapes on site, which are perfect for chucking into your brother’s mouth from 20 seats away.
Generations: 10 | Food-coma conduciveness: 8 | Throwback decor: 10 | Casual-formal mix: 8
2. Sabatino’s (Old Irving Park | 4441 W. Irving Park Rd.)
We named it one of our best places for a date for its roving violinist and the ultraromantic booths, complete with privacy curtains for making out or making deals. Plates of housemade gnocchi and pappardelle are even more decadent when the servings are so generous.
Generations: 8 | Food-coma conduciveness: 9 | Throwback decor: 10 | Casual-formal mix: 10
1. Club Lago (River North | 331 W. Superior St.)
The decor: as stated before, the “red vinyl booths, terrazzo flooring, and checkered tablecloths … are old-school holdovers from the 1950s” (pictured at the top). The management: brothers GianCarlo and Guido Nardini are the third generation of their family to run the restaurant. The vibe: A place where “everybody,” from celebrities to civilians, feels at home. Portions are generous, the wait staff is friendly, and Robert DeNiro even filmed a movie here. And the eatery has risen, like a phoenix, after a fire almost devastated it in 2004. If that’s not old school, we don’t know what is.
Hardiness: 10 | Food-coma conduciveness: 10 | Throwback decor: 10 | Casual-formal mix: 10
Did we miss your favorite Italian spot? Let us know, and choose which one of these spots Groupon should run a deal with!
Photo of Balena by Neil Burger, Stronghold Photography; photo of Vito & Nick’s by Andrew Nawrocki, Groupon; photo of Club Lago by Russ Augustine, Groupon