Monday, December 16, 2013

Marching With The Sheep for Italian Food - Eataly & Cicchetti

I lied my way into an Eataly pre-opening party, then spent 5 consecutive days visiting during its initial week in Chicago.  Ready to move to the newest hotspot, I showed up at Cicchetti on the Sunday before it opened, having misunderstood internet postings about the place's grand opening.  Unable to talk my way into a mock service they were doing to train staff, I had to wait until they officially opened today for lunch.  Make fun of me if you want, but I am hungry for good Italian food in a city that sorely lacks it.  And my office is steps away from these places.  And I am a sheep.  I couldn't resist.

More has already been written in this town about Eataly than about The Bears, so I'll keep this brief and highlight a few specifics I haven't yet seen described elsewhere.  Eataly is very, very good.  There are interesting products that simply don't exist anywhere else in town, and there is a focus on handcrafted goods that's wonderful in some cases (the filled pastas and the mozzarella ), and admirable even where it works only modestly well (the bread and the pastries).  Among the many restaurants, I've already found some truly special dishes.  The pizza is now my favorite in town, with a crust full of character and flavor, quality toppings that are applied judiciously, and the wet center characteristic of many great Neapolitan pizzas - a characteristic that was sadly abandoned by other local pizzerias in deference to customer complaints.  At the restaurant focused on fried stuff, there's an ultra-simple radish dish that I can't stop thinking about.  No breading or coating - just the carefully-cleaned radishes with their greens still attached, deep fried in olive oil and drizzled with honey and salt when they come out.  I've never had anything like it, and I want it more and more.

At Cicchetti I ate a soup and a pasta.  The white bean soup was served with whole beans, pickled greens, toasted garlic and speck-infused whipped cream in the bowl, the server then pouring the piping-hot pureed bean soup over the top tableside.  The flavors worked well, with the each element powerful on its own in a way that balanced things out well in the end.  I had a small problem with the texture of the beans, some of which seemed rubbery and chalky, as if they'd been undercooked.  Still, it's a dish I'd happily eat again, which I can't say about the pasta.  The squid ink orecchiette were clearly handmade, because only about half of them were actually orecchiette.  The others failed to curve into the characteristic shape and texture, so were essentially just uniformly round coins.  The point of a shape like this is that it forms a little cup that captures and holds sauces, so this was a real failure in pasta-making execution.  The dish also had an American-style oversaucing problem, with way too much tangy tomato sauce for a restaurant with any real Italian ambition.

I'll be back to Eataly many, many times.  There's some terrific food to eat in, interesting handmade and imported products, and staples like bananas and milk and reasonable-enough prices that one could easily make Eataly a primary grocery shopping venue.  I'm sure I'll return to Cicchetti too.  The soup was good, and Mike Sheerin and Phil Rubino have each cooked food I loved at former venues.

671 N St Clair St, Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 642-1800

43 E Ohio St, Chicago, Illinois 60611

(312) 521-8700


1 comment:

  1. I returned to Eataly on Saturday (first time since the media event) with my kids, and we ate at the pizza and pasta place (mainly, though some noshing happened elsewhere). Partly because they looked good and partly because we'd had both of them in Rome not that long ago, we had bucatini all'amatriciana and cacio e pepe. Both were quite good, and I really liked the addition of a little bit of onion (the football-shaped kind) to the former. But even after one of the principals (I forget which) told me that Italian food isn't oversauced like Italian-American food, I felt like there was about 25% more sauce than there ought to be. Particularly the cacio e pepe-- I'm converted to the idea that it should be almost dry, and this seemed buttery, as in, half a stick of. They were both still good, just somewhere north of minimalist as I expected.

    One interesting thing I noted was that the training really has been thorough. I bought different things from two different African-American ladies, and it's possible they were versed on subjects like serving squash ravioli with a brown butter sauce or what al dente really means before they went to work there, but if they were not, both their knowledge and their enthusiasm at this point was admirable.