As the temperature in Chicago drops, there is nothing better than a pasta dinner at a cozy restaurant. With dozens of Chicago eateries dishing up pasta, it can be hard to pick a place to eat. After years of dining at Chicago's restaurants, I have created a round up of some of the most outstanding pasta dishes in the city. Cacio e Pepe at Balena This creamy cheese pasta is a classic. Cacio e Pepe translates to "Cheese and Pepper" and while a traditional formula for the recipe exists, Cacio e Pepe is a dish that not all restaurants have mastered. Balena's Cacio e Pepe, made with their house made pasta, is perfection. The cheese and pepper flavors are beautifully balanced, and the pasta dish has a satisfying creaminess.Tagliatelle with Short Rib Ragu at EatalyEataly is home to several restaurants, including La Pizza & La Pasta. While Eataly can be packed with tourists making the wait time for dinner quite long, the Tagliatelle with Short Rib Ragu is worth waiting for. Delicate fresh pasta is coated with a chunky short rib ragu and topped with Parmigiano Reggiano. This is a hearty, meaty, pasta dish and one of the best things Eataly has to offer.Raviolo at CocelloCocello is a quiet restaurant in Chicago's River North that serves classics and more modern creations. The space has leather booths and low lighting, making it a perfect place for a dinner with friends. The menu features several pasta dishes, but the raviolo is the show stopper. A Raviolo is a giant ravioli, and the creative twist on the dish at Cocello is that when diners cut into the ravioli a runny egg yolk spills out, and acts as a sauce for the ricotta filled pasta.The combination of the egg yolk, ricotta, and brown butter has just the right amount of richness.Meyer Lemon Tagliatelle at The Pump RoomThe Pump Room in Chicago's Gold Coast has a history of being a celebrity hangout. These days it is a favorite place for Chicago locals to spend date night. The inviting restaurant is decorated with globe lights which lend the space a romantic atmosphere. While The Pump Room isn't an Italian restaurant, it is home to one of the most fun and creative pasta dishes in the city. The fresh tagliatelle with a creamy meyer lemon parmesan sauce is simply delightful. The dish is light and uncomplicated and bursting with flavor.Chicken Thigh Ravioli at TesoriTesori is a new Italian restaurant in the Loop, just a short walk from the Art Institute. Their braised chicken thigh ravioli with leeks, chanterelles, and au jus is a highlight of their menu. The pasta had a nice weight and toothiness to it, and the balance of tastes was perfect. The au jus was a lighter sauce and this dish is intended to be eaten with a soup spoon so that the au jus can be enjoyed with eat bite.Cavatelli at QuartinoQuartino is a bustling restaurant in River North that is known for serving small plates of classic Italian dishes. While the restaurant does have exceptional thin crust pizza, I always order their pasta. The freshly made cavatelli with a rustic tomato sauce, chunks of ricotta, and torn basil is a vegetarian's dream. The menu at Quartino is large, but if you can't make up your mind, ordering two half orders of different pastas is a fun option. Short Rib Stroganoff at Bavettes Bar and Boeuf Bavettes is a steakhouse, but their short rib stroganoff is just as mouthwatering as the steaks. Fresh pasta is paired with big chunks of braised short rib, mushrooms, and a cream sauce. It is a decadent meal perfect for a special occasion.Read More
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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: 69. 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: 68. 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: 47. 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: 66. 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: 65. 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: 84. 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: 73. 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: 82. 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: 101. 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: 10Did 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, GrouponRead More
Tony Mantuano has competed on Top Chef Masters. He's won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest. He's cooked for President Obama. Yet in 2014 he looks to be just as busy as ever. Chef Mantuano is in the midst of relaunching his Michelin-starred Spiaggia (980 N. Michigan Ave.), perhaps his best-known restaurant, where he'll create a more modern atmosphere complete with a new lounge space. And in the spring he'll open his first non-Italian eatery. At the beginning of what’s shaping up to be a busy year for him, Chef Mantuano sat down with us to share his plans, as well as some of his favorite places to unwind when he’s not in his own kitchens. GROUPON: I’ve seen you around at a couple restaurants—not that I’m stalking you—but I’ve seen you at Au Cheval (800 W. Randolph St.) and Slurping Turtle (116 W. Hubbard St.), and I was thinking it’s really cool to see other chefs at their peers’ restaurants, supporting each other, and it also makes me feel like I picked a good restaurant to be in. It made me wonder, what are your favorite places to go when you’re not in your own kitchen? TONY MANTUANO: Slurping Turtle we like a lot. Let’s see. I like Publican (837 W. Fulton Market) a lot, I’ve gone there quite a few times. It’s sort of a regular place; in fact, I think I’ve probably celebrated three or four birthdays at Publican, so that tells you something right there. I really enjoyed the steak house at Next (953 W. Fulton Market); I thought that was really fun and different for them. It was really delicious with cool takes on standards. It was a lot of fun. G: What is it that draws you to these restaurants in particular? Is there a certain characteristic you’re looking for when you’re outside of your own kitchen? TM: You begin to respect certain chefs and you know they’re going to do something that’s going to be pretty interesting. You know who’s really doing a great job, who’s at the top of their game. There’s only so many calories in a day so you want to make sure you spend them right. G: Would you say there’s a community feel among the chefs in Chicago? TM: There’s absolutely a community feel. There’s a lot of respect and graciousness when you go to each others’ restaurants. I don’t know if other cities are like this, but Chicago has a great chef community…There’s a lot of respect; you’re always rooting for the other guy to be successful; I don’t think you’re ever rooting for the wrong reasons or for someone to fail. When there’s someone who’s really working hard and at the top of their game, you want to root for that guy. G: So you’re undergoing some renovations at Spiaggia and opening up an entirely new concept on the river. Is there anyone in particular you’re hoping will come stop by once everything’s open? TM: I think what we’re doing at Spiaggia is going to open Spiaggia for a lot more people. The fact that we’re adding a lounge, I think that will appeal to the industry because there’s not that full commitment to a starred Michelin experience, like, I can be in the Spiaggia dining room, in the lounge, and be relaxed, so I’m hoping my fellow industry people will discover that. I think what we’re doing on the river [in the old Fulton’s on the River space (315 N. LaSalle Blvd.)] is going to be a place that appeals to everyone. It’s about roasts and a lot of great beer. I think it’s something that whether you’re a fellow chef or whether you’re an average guy you’re going to like it…One of the great things about that place in the summertime is that it may have the best patio on the river in the entire city. There are so many patios on the river, but this one is right next to the river. It’s pretty cool. G: It’s cool to hear you talk about [your plans]. I’m so excited for you. TM: We’re very excited about what’s happening this year. It’s going to be a great year. My executive chef, Chris Marchino, at Spiaggia is right now in Italy, and the daily recaps I get of what he’s experiencing is going to greatly influence the lounge menu at Spiaggia. So there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of great things happening right now. G: Thanks again for your time. I always have a great time when I eat in your restaurants. I especially love Bar Toma. TM: Oh, thanks! That’s great, I’m glad to hear that. Bar Toma’s going through some changes too this year to become even more of a full Italian restaurant rather than just a pizzeria; that’s what our guests are asking for. You’ll see more pastas on the menu there that we haven’t been doing before. G: That’ll be fantastic. I can’t wait to try it all. TM: Great! And say hello next time I run into you. Thumbnail photo credit of Jeff Kauck; inline photo courtesy of Huge CaldonesRead More
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