The way I see it there are two types of Italian restaurants – “spaghetti and meatballs with red sauce” places and “authentic, more like real Italian food you’ll find in Italy” places. While I do love the occasional giant plate of chicken Parmesan slathered in sweet tomato sauce, I’m only going to write about my favorite authentic Italian Chicago restaurants.
That’s my bar when judging and recommending Italian places in Chicago…are they as good as the memorable food I’ve had during my many trips to Italy? Like the crespelle I had in Rome, Frito Misto in Venice, veal Milanese in Milan, brick oven pizza in Sorrento, pecorino cheese in Pienza and bisteca fiorentina in Florence. While Chicago’s not Italy, there are plenty of amazing Italian restaurants serving authentic Italian.
Here are my top five favorite city spots along with some honorable mentions. Obviously this list is subjective. People are pretty opinionated and passionate when it comes to their favorite Italian restaurant. Feel free to write in and disagree or make some of your own suggestions.
Balena has it all and they’re number one my list. Chef Chris Pandel’s knows his way around amazing pastas. They’re original, perfectly executed and unlike anything you’ll get in Chicago. A stand out dish and menu staple is the briny squid ink tagliolini nero, with crab, sea urchin and chili flakes. I also recommend the simple, silky hen egg tajarin with sage and brown butter. Balena also churns out outstanding pizzas, oven roasted meats, fresh fish dishes, superb cocktails and tasty side dishes. Their wine list is deep and the service is always friendly and attentive. Moderately priced $$
1633 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 • 312-867-3888
Davanti is expanding like crazy, but it hasn’t detracted from the overall experience. I never feel like I’m eating in a chain restaurant. I’ve eaten at three of their Chicago-area locations and all of them were outstanding. They’re best known for their small, share-plate dining, so it’s nice to go with a group of people to split a bunch of dishes. I haven’t had a single miss on their menu. They have incredible pizza and pastas; they make an unbelievable steak; and their seafood is outstanding. Some of my favorite dishes are the truffle egg toast, spicy broccolini, grilled octopus, cacia e pepe (spaghetti with pecorino cheese) and the focaccia di Recco (a fresh baked bread with soft cow cheese served with a local honey). If you eat at the River North location, it’s attached to a Glazed and Confused doughnut shop. Just sayin’. Moderately priced $$
Nico Osteria is the youngest restaurant on the list. It’s also the most expensive, but worth every penny. Everyone I know who’s been there loves it. The space is beautiful featuring a long crowded bar – it’s a cool vibe with front row seats facing the open and frantically busy kitchen. During my visits, the service was spot-on and, most importantly, the food was outstanding and super inventive. The vast menu is broken down into sections – crudo (sashimi style fish), fettunta (toasted bread with toppings), antipastsi, pasta, fresh fish and large plates, which are a combination of fish and meat dishes. They also have some great vegetable side dishes. Highlights include the bigeye tuna crudo with foie gras pastrami, stuffed pappardelle with milk braised pork and black truffle, salt crusted whole branzino, grilled asparagus with almond crema and the pan roasted wild turbot. Don’t let the amount of choices overwhelm you - you can’t miss. Expensive $$$
I’m a huge Top Chef fan so I was pretty pumped when I heard past contestant Fabio Viviani was opening a place in Chicago. He partnered up with the Dine/AMIC restaurant group owners of Bull & Bear and Public House. Siena has a great vibe, hopping bar scene, outdoor summer seating, great food and excellent service. While everything on the extensive menu is delicious I’ll give you my “must gets”. Coccoli, a fried crispy dough served with ham and truffle honey. Knock-your-socks-off good. Other stand outs: grilled octopus, Tuscan kale salad, shaved Brussels sprouts, truffle mushroom pizza, orecchiette with prosciutto sausage, spaghetti with jumbo lump crab and the brick chicken. Siena also followed the new food bar trend with a fresh mozzarella bar and crudo bar. End your meal with the bombolini, which in Italian probably means fried doughnuts that will blow your mind. As if the donuts weren’t good enough as is, you get 3 little bottles of sweet fillings that you can squirt into your donut. That sounded dirty. Moderately priced $$
I’m always amazed that a place the size of RPM can churn out such great quality food.
But they do, and they do it consistently well. My only knock on RPM is that it can be a bit of a “too cool for school” scene. For example, you’re handed lighted pagers while you wait for your table and Hollywood backers Giuliana & Bill Rancic showed up once while we were there to guest bartend – quite the show. Trendiness aside, the food, the service, the bar and the wine list are all fantastic. If you want a start the meal off with a little confidence juice, I recommend the bellini and the Long Faced Dove. Some of my shouldn’t miss dishes are - fried burrata, lobster caprese, gnocco frito (fried dough), mushroom pizette (small pizza), sweat pea agnolotti, king crab spaghetti, whole branzino and the veal chop. For dessert I get the rice pudding with vanilla gelato. I’m a sucker for rice pudding. Moderately priced $$
52 W Illinois St, Chicago, IL 60654 • 312-222-1888
Acanto – New Italian from Billy Lawless who owns The Gage next door. He knows how to run a restaurant. 18 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60603 • 312-578-0763
Piccolo Sogno – Ole’ Chicago standby. Great outdoor space, great food.
464 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60642 • 312-421-0077