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SURF AND TURF(ISH) Grilled octopus with beef-braised baby carrots ($13) 

Getting the Boot

by Lisa Shames | Photo by Anthony Tahlier | Men's Book Chicago magazine | May 28, 2015

No, it’s not just your imagination—there have been a lot of new Italian restaurants opening up in Chicago. But while Italy is only slightly bigger than Arizona, it’s a country rich in diverse regional cuisines. And, it seems, plenty of local chefs are doing their best to explore them. To which, we say, “Grazie!”

Piccolo Sogno and Piccolo Sogno Due
Tony Priolo’s first introduction to Italian cuisine was via his Sicilian grandmother. Since then, whether at Coco Pazzo (one of the first Chicago restaurants to focus on the region of Tuscany) or later at Piccolo Sogno and Piccolo Sogno Due, Priolo has followed the lessons he learned way back of sticking to traditional Italian dishes prepared simply with the best ingredients possible. “Italians don’t eat complicated,” says Priolo. “They complicate every other aspect of their lives, but not when it comes to food and drink.” 464 N. Halsted St., 312.421.0077; 340 N. Clark St., 312.822.0077

What chef Christopher Gawronski lacks in Italian heritage—he’s Polish—he more than makes up for in hands-on experience: Gawronski grew up with a father, also a chef, who owned two pasta places in metro Detroit. And judging from the terrific housemade pastas at Acanto, including a decadent duck-egg spaghetti and hearty lamb-ragout rigatoni, Gawronski did more than just eat pasta every day as a kid. (Although there’s nothing wrong with that.) Attention to detail is found throughout the dishes here, ranging from suckling pig sourced from Montreal to artichoke hearts with caper berries and kale. Youth, it seems, isn’t always wasted on the young. 18 S. Michigan Ave., 312.578.0763

Great Italian cuisine is all about great ingredients—something that Alex Pilas, as executive chef of Eataly USA, has at his fingertips in spades. At Baffo, sister restaurant to Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York City, you’ll find a culinary tour of Italy’s 20 regions, featuring both recognizable dishes as well as those meant to challenge diners’ palates. 44 E. Grand Ave., 312.521.8701

While chef Matt Troost has nothing against traditional pastas, he’s not afraid to shake things up. “I want pasta to be more than a vehicle for sauce,” he says.  “It should be its own ingredient.” Case in point: his housemade black kale spaghetti that includes fresh kale juice in the dough. His creste di gallo—“looks like macaroni with a mohawk,” says Troost—which he pairs with venison Bolognese, gets additional flavor from toasted fennel seeds. It’s not just the pastas that Troost’s having fun with. The baby carrots sharing the plate with grilled octopus take a walk on the wild side with a braising in beef broth. A topping of breadcrumbs cooked in rendered bone marrow add crunch. Nonmeat-eaters, you’ve been warned. 1329 W. Chicago Ave., 312.818.2073

Remember those red-sauce Italian joints you knew and loved as a kid? The group behind this Randolph Street newcomer sure does. But rather than simply tap into those warm and fuzzy memories, the restaurant has upped the ante here. Or, as chef Tony Quartaro puts it, “We wanted to bring Italian-American food up to speed for today’s diner while keeping the spirit, tradition and soul intact.” That’s done with familiar-sounding dishes such as eggplant Parmesan, chicken Vesuvio and Nonna’s Meatballs, as well as with ones that push the envelope, such as quail saltimbocca with a creamy puree of cauliflower and fontina cheese. Who says you can’t go home again? 925 W. Randolph St., 312.690.7295

Ceres’ Table
Even when Giuseppe Scurato found himself cooking at non-Italian restaurants early on in his career, Italian touches would find their way into his food. “It’s in my DNA,” says the Sicilian-born chef. “It’s always there.” And we are glad it is. At his Lakeview restaurant, Scurato features dishes from all over the Boot, although he has a soft spot for those from the South, including the Sicilian seafood stew pictured above. After a recent trip to the region, Scurato returned with new ideas (and perhaps a little homesickness too). “Even though I was born and raised there, I always find things I’ve never seen before,” he says. A new discovery in Chicago of Piennolo tomatoes from the region of Campania—the area’s rich lava soil imparts a unique flavor—has Scurato particularly excited. Look for them in a pasta dish with salt cod, white wine and garlic. 3124 N. Broadway, 773.922.4020

Nico Osteria
It was during a college semester abroad in Rome that chef Erling Wu-Bower first discovered his passion for authentic Italian food—and it has only gotten stronger since. Add in fish, his other food crush—“I’ve been a seafood kid all my life,” he says—and you’ll have a good idea of what you’ll find at this Gold Coast restaurant. When developing new dishes, Wu-Bower likes to first “hit the books” before doing his own interpretation. That combo of authenticity and creative license is how he and Executive Chef Paul Kahan came up with a unique way to cook salt-crusted branzino. Rather than roast the fish whole as it’s done in Italy, it’s deboned and then cooked under a salt crust with the bones placed back in for flavor—“We call it ‘frankenfishing,’” says Wu-Bower—to ensure it’s warm when it hits the table. “For us, it’s about how to take traditional Italian methods and make [them] right in a restaurant.” 1015 N. Rush St., 312.994.7100

Osteria Langhe
“There’s so much more to Italian cuisine than how it’s often represented in restaurants in this country,” says chef Cameron Grant, who, after running his own restaurant for more than two years in Treiso, Italy, knows of what he speaks. At Logan Square’s Osteria Langhe, the Scottish-born Grant focuses on Piedmont, the Italian region he calls “a jewel of the world.” Dishes run the gamut from the adventurous—tripe with bone marrow and tongue; braised rabbit; and snail confit with leeks, carrots and garlic—to the more familiar, such as a daily changing risotto and pan-roasted halibut with puttanesca salsa. Those looking for heaping bowls of pasta can satisfy that craving too, but only on Sundays when the restaurant features an all-you-can-eat-ragout special ($19). 2824 W. Armitage Ave., 773.661.1582

Labriola Ristorante & Café
Growing up in New York, John Caputo may have resented the lack of hamburgers served in his home, but now, as a chef, his appreciation for the Italian food he was raised on by his parents and grandparents has grown considerably. “For me, it’s comfort food,” he says. “It’s what I’ve known all my life.” At the recently opened Labriola Ristorante & Café, Caputo channels the rustic Italian food of his childhood with his culinary experience at restaurants such as Bin 36 and A Mano. That means, in addition to five housemade pastas, including squid-ink campanelle with calamari and bucatini all’amatriciana, the menu also includes slow-roasted Berkshire porchetta topped with crispy pork skin and house-smoked swordfish carpaccio. And there’s a burger too, albeit one with bacon-onion jam and duck fat garlic aioli. Says Caputo, “I’m American first, but with Italian heritage.” 535 N. Michigan Ave., 312.955.3100