Washed up in the wave of high-profile Italian openings (Bar Toma, Balena, even Nellcote) are two restaurants that couldn't be more at odds: RPM and Bar Ombra. The next time I want to disappear I'm headed for the latter, the Venetian-style bar from Marty Fosse and Tim Rasmussen, a radical transformation of one-half of their once overextended farm-to-table concept Acre, which continues to operate alongside Ombra in the same Andersonville space.
Remember Acre's bright, golden-toned, open dining room with the rusty farm implements on the wall? Ombra strikes another mood altogether, with walls papered in sepia-toned vintage Italian newspapers and a compressed dining room dominated by the bar up front and a long glass-fronted food counter that runs back toward the kitchen. It's further crowded by two rows of high-backed wooden booths. Claustrophobes may wish to avoid this environment, created by Davide Nanni of Alter Ego Form, the design firm behind Ruxbin, Simone's, and the Boiler Room, but it seems perfectly suitable for clandestine planning sessions among members of the Red Brigade. If you care to eat at the long counter, however, your plan better not call for more than one accomplice—swiveling chairs are bolted to the bar in pairs limiting interaction with anyone to either side.
These tight quarters are at odds with the sheer volume and variety of the kitchen's output. The menu by Anteprima/Acre executive chef Carlos Ysaguirre focuses on cicchetti, little bar snacks analogous to Spanish tapas that are the trade in Venetian bars. The selection, broken into ten categories, is more regional than strictly northern, and big enough to baffle. Helpfully, much of it is arrayed on platters behind glass, allowing pointing rather than puzzling over the menu. One of my conspirators observed that this display looked like the deli counter at Jewel, but many of these things, particularly salads—broccoli with chili and lemon, olive-feta-grapefruit salad, beans-cabbage-radishes—have forgiving shelf lives, and are their best consumed at room temperature.
I was most impressed by what came directly from that kitchen: triangular crustless tea sandwiches (tramezzini), soft white bread bedded with whipped mortadella or shrimp suspended in peppery horseradish aioli; sweet-and-sour, wine-and-vinegar-marinated fried sardines (pesce in saor); arancini, whose brittle golden crust breaks over creamy pitch-black squid ink rice; thin slices of cold beef tongue in salsa verde; artichoke hearts with salty aioli, flash-fried and flowering; and on and on.
Polenta is a recurring delivery vehicle, baked and cut from creamy sheets, the platform for a kind of brandade (baccala mantecato), the foundation of an entree-size lasagna, or the drowning victim in a massive serving of squid cooked in its own ink. Like shredded sneaker rubber in shoe polish, the calamari neri was the only naked failure I encountered (our server, to his credit, did warn us to stay away from it).
Still, you could survive for days here holed up in a booth with a laptop exploring offerings extending to salumi and cheese, panini and bruschetta, fried smelts and cheese croquettes, and raw and cured bits. The most iconic of these I could eat every night: a candle-warmed terra cotta dish of bagna cauda, an emulsified anchovy and olive oil dipping sauce surrounded by fennel, radicchio, and endive.
A regional, mostly northern Italian wine list is augmented by some nice cocktails: both the negroni, served on the rocks, and the prosecco and Aperol Venetian spritz balance the sweet and bitter in typical Italian style. Speaking of bitter, finish off with a small glass of Amaro Dell Erbolista, if you're keen to taste amaro's answer to Malort.
If you're of the mind that restaurants are places to concentrate on food and friends, Ombra is the kind of spot you might return to repeatedly. If your idea of a night out is to worry about what everyone else is wearing, may I recommend RPM, the sprawling new spot from Melman siblings R.J., Jerrod, and Molly, and the vapid, reality TV celebricouple Bill and Giuliana Rancic?
Housed in the former Ben Pao space (also the historic home of the Boy Scouts), it is soundtracked by a numbing aural straitjacket of trance and electronica (the bar is dominated by a DJ platform, blessedly deserted on my visits), but has great sight lines, making it possible to see almost the entire restaurant and everyone in it from any point. Even relegated to a dark, raised alcove with the rest of the D-listers, you can still gape at Jeff Garlin canoodling at the bar with the Melman kids, or the table of Bulls at the center of the dining room celebrating a loss to the Denver Nuggets. They hang out here a lot, reportedly: "Whenever I see a tall black guy I'm like, 'Are you guys Bulls?'" boasted a server.
It would be easy to dismiss this as yet another shallow River North birdbath for the likes that frequent Paris Club and Hub 51, but that's only if you neglect to note the "P" in RPM, which stands for Doug Psaltis, the chef, who worked for Alain Ducasse and in a number of well-regarded Manhattan restaurants before joining Empire Lettuce for better (L2O) and perhaps worse (Paris Club).
His menu is nearly evenly composed of pastas, small plates akin to Ombra's, and larger steakhouse-style offerings such as whole grilled branzino and a 38-ounce bistecca Fiorentina for two ($118). And there's some good stuff here, more than enough to make a decent meal, particularly a tuna carpaccio bolstered by the acidic tang of fermented black garlic, squid ink spaghetti tossed with chili and fresh, sweet King Crab meat, ribbons of cold poached veal dressed in creamy tuna sauce, and huge cross sections of grilled octopus tentacle, steaklike and dressed with celery and pureed chickpea.
Some things, like the irregularly sized arancini or the soft prime-beef meatballs, look like they'd been molded by a practiced nonna's hand, though I couldn't imagine anyone's grandma putting out the dry stuffing balls advertised as eggplant polpettine.
I experienced some similarly serious misfires among the pastas: rotini tossed with rubbery scungilli and a level of lemon set at scour; arid duck agnolotti, the meat encased in hard pasta; and a mushy porcini risotto that had been cooked to near porridge consistency.
But these were mitigated by a generally fizzy cocktail list designed by Paul McGee, which includes a handful of the easier libations from his tenure at the Whistler. Beyond that, straight pours of spirits match the desserts—such as an ostrich egg-size chocolate-hazelnut ice cream ball—in generosity.
In terms of the food this might be the most winnable restaurant yet from the Melman siblings. But that's not enough to get me back inside. If you're looking for me, try Bar Ombra.