Snout-to-tail cooking is the name of the game at The Purple Pig, a convivial take on an Italian enoteca from Scott Harris (Mia Francesca), Jimmy Bannos Sr. (Heaven on Seven), and chef Jimmy Bannos Jr., who honed his skills at Mario Batali's New York restaurants. While there was no actual snout, sow's ear became the proverbial silk purse in crunchy-chewy fried strips with crispy kale, marinated cherry peppers, and a fried egg to mix in, all served in a cute wine-colored pig bowl. Sections of tender pig's tail braised and glazed in tart balsamic were draped with a little egg salad, making me wonder if Bannos was riffing on bacon and eggs. I enjoyed the lingua agrodolce, thin slices of delicately sweet-and-sour pork tongue cured in-house (not all the meats are), but slightly pasty pork neck-bone rillettes needed the accompanying mostarda and country-style grilled bread to bring them to life. Other intriguing "smears," as they're listed on the menu, included pork liver paté and roasted bone marrow with herbs; pork blade steak and milk-braised shoulder were among the hot dishes.
But not all the pleasures are porcine at this noisy spot, where diners perch on bar stools, at high communal tables, or—if they're lucky—snag seats along the banquette amid wine-barrel wall decorations and tile work. Of our four (too) cold antipasti, expertly seasoned giant Greek lima beans paired with olive-oil-poached tuna was the favorite, followed by brown-butter-caramelized butternut squash with pumpkin seeds and ricotta salata, which nonetheless would have been better warm. So would the somewhat strong, chewy clams with rosamarina (a wheat pasta similar to orzo). Brussels sprouts shaved to a fine slaw were so cheesy with Pecorino Foglie di Noce and Parmigiano Reggiano they seemed geared toward people who don't like brussels sprouts.
Hot and cold complemented each other in crisply fried sardines crisscrossed over a refreshing salad of shaved fennel in a lemon vinaigrette laced with capers, pine nuts, and currants. The pop of pomegranate seeds beautifully set off a glossy golden quail on a puddle of salsify puree ringed by a drizzle of pomegranate syrup. Octopus on Swiss chard and acini di pepe (think Israeli couscous) was OK but pricey at $8 for two thumb-size cuts of tentacle.
The menu listed 13 cheeses, a few of which were unavailable. The highlight of our trio was Podda, a nutty Sardinian cheese made from a blend of sheep's and cow's milk. Desserts were a letdown—even silky gianduia soft-serve had little chocolate or hazelnut flavor. Sicilian Iris, recommended by our hard-working server but too oily for me, resembled a hot jelly doughnut with a ricotta and chocolate-chip filling. The all-European wine list has at least 50 bottles for $40 or less; any can be ordered by the half bottle, and quite a few are also available by the glass or quartino. One tip: a glossary of terms is posted on the rectangular lampshades over the high tables and bar, but you might want to bone up before coming or bring a food dictionary (is there an app for that yet?). Reservations aren't accepted, so waits can be long. —Anne Spiselman
I hope Ceres' Table will have better luck than Monticchio, its short-lived predecessor, in exorcising the ghosts that haunt this ground-floor space in the hideous condo building erected on the ruins of the Rainbo Roller Rink. It's an unpicturesque spot with a view of Saint Boniface Cemetery, and the spare bulb-lit blue-gray walls of the minimally reworked space bring to mind a wintry subbasement where sinister deeds may once have been done. But chef-owner Giuseppe Scurato (Boka, MK, Topaz Cafe), who prowls the dining room taking comments on his unclassifiable menu, animates the places with a gruff but welcoming warmth.
There's a lot to compliment him on when he comes around, from a tensile but flavorful tangle of octopus with puttanesca sauce and tart preserved lemon to a cold veal tongue and white bean salad perked up with celery, pickled carrot, and pink peppercorn to a simple country paté with pickled fruit mostarda (which also shows up to brilliant effect in the house old-fashioned, the standout on a short list of ill-conceived cocktails). Not surprisingly Scurato's most winning dishes are the ones that reference his Italian heritage. (He's a native of Sicily.) His house-made strozzapreti with wild boar ragu has the kind of toothy textural mojo passed down by generations of nonnas; his pillowy gnocchi with rabbit confit sauce is dressed in a thin arugula pesto that had my table gobsmacked; and an Acquarello aged-rice pudding accented with crunchy puffed rice brittle makes playful but respectful use of esoteric ingredients.
Some of the simple, not overtly Italian dishes were successful too: a tender dino-size lamb shank with horseradish mash nicely bridged the gulf between Mediterranean and midwestern. But a rangy venison ragu atop an overly sweet, almost breakfast-appropriate craisin-studded polenta was a surprising disappointment, and a piece of whitefish in a wide bowl of rapidly cooling New England clam chowder offered nothing more interesting than the dueling flavors of bacon and cream. Still, as unfocused as it is, there's a lot to love on this menu. I just want more of the Italian stuff—and to wash it down, more of the uncommon but brassy southern Italian reds that highlight Scurato's long and approachably priced wine list. —Mike Sula
Chef Macku Chan (Heat, Mirai Sushi) and his brothers Kaze and Hari have resurfaced after the legal dispute that killed Kaze Sushi, their former Roscoe Village restaurant. Macku is an uncomfortably smaller space, but not much has changed when it comes to the overwhelming and unrestrained menu. The most questionable expressions of Macku's creativity where it comes to fish remain: while you can almost understand the combination of smoked salmon and Laughing Cow cheese, rolling it into unagi makimono just seems like provocation for its own sake. And yet I can see it appealing to the sort of sushi consumer who hasn't learned to appreciate fish and rice on their own terms. The eel is cooked, of course—none of that scary raw stuff—and incorporated into the roll with crispy shrimp. It's crunchy, it's cheesy—it should come in a bag and be eaten in front of the TV. While the Chans' signature nigiri and sashimi are more artfully presented and challenging, you can't judge the quality of the raw fish with such embellishments as pickled onion and truffle oil (topping bigeye tuna) or fried garlic and tomato-mushroom puree (disguising the merits, or lack thereof, of a slice of bonito).
That said, there are a few inspired combinations that're better than the sum of their parts: otherwise lean flounder is nicely balanced by some buttery foie gras and spicy ponzu. Still, you'd have to opt for less-adorned standard pieces to discover that the Chan brothers' fish isn't bad at all. In fact, it can be pretty fresh.
Further complicating matters at any given seating is a disorienting list of appetizers, soup, salads, and entrees. Some, such as a dainty cup of carrot soup with white miso, cream, and king crab—rich enough for two to share at $6—are marvelous. Others seem like extravagant teases: a toddler's handful of tiny, crispy river crabs alongside a reservoir of buttery Japanese curry, priced at a shocking $10, would be more appropriate at $5, or better yet as a shared amuse. The piscine sacrilege extends to the entrees, where it's epitomized by a lovely panko-coated fried cod fillet topped by wan slices of strawberry (in February?) and slid onto a slick of chocolate miso sauce—it's like a fish sundae with a side of bok choy. Such gimmickry plays to a collective willingness to be suckered. —Mike Sula