Restaurant Tours: ristorante madness | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: ristorante madness 

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The Italians keep coming! The Italians keep coming!

More and better Italian/Mediterranean restaurants are opening every month and there's no end in sight; Chicagoans seem to have an endless capacity for the cuisine in all its marvelous regional and stylistic incarnations. Whether it's the gorgeous, specialized cocina of Genoa, as served at I Tre Merli, the sea fare of Mare, or the pan-Mediterranean inventions of Ti Amo, we're finding the new places packed and our own taste buds tingling. And you'll hardly find a chunk of chicken Vesuvio anywhere near these joints.

I Tre Merli, meaning "the three blackbirds," was opened first (by the same owners) in Genoa and then New York. It's in a huge space in River North that looks like it might be a converted firehouse: nearly two stories high with skylights and an elevated dining section at the far end in addition to the bustling main level. Its bare brick walls are lined with racks of the wine it imports under its own label from Italian vineyards. By the glass or bottle, the table wines we sampled were good and fairly priced. The kitchen has been producing masterfully since the restaurant's opening, though service in its early days was a mite confused.

Artichokes are a mainstay of Genoese cooking, and we had them in several dishes, including raw artichoke salad ($5.75), a unique, crunchy experience; the vegetable was sliced thin and dressed with lemon, fine olive oil, and a dusting of parmesan. Grilled calamari were dressed with lemon as well and bedded down on some delicate tasting spinach ($5.75). Grilled, slightly salty scallops were impressive, matched up with crisp fried leeks and a scattering of cannellini beans ($6.25).

The house specialty among the pastas--a plate of tender ravioli stuffed with herbed ricotta and drenched in another Genoese mainstay, a lush walnut cream sauce ($9.75)--might make you wonder why Columbus ever left home. Artichokes reappeared on another of our pastas, this one a heap of penne slathered with a pale tomato-based sauce with shrimp ($11), and fried artichokes trimmed our excellent, snowy chunk of grilled sea bass ($16.75). The breaded veal cutlet Milanese, served on the bone, was pounded thin and flat, so big it engulfed our plate, but the meat was impeccably tender and had a crisp, well-seasoned coat ($17.50).

We tried several desserts, including a fine cheesecake ($4.50), but were most impressed with the zucotto, an ornate layering of maraschino-soaked spongecake and vanilla and chocolate mousse, studded with hazelnuts and chocolate chips ($4.50).

The chef is Rene Michelena, self-exiled (as is the sous chef) from Charlie Trotter's. They're so proud of their many breads that loaves are for sale up front at the cashier's. There's also a giant wine cellar and lots of choices by the glass. Michelena's spread is mainly Italian or Italian-derived with musings from Greece, Spain, and Provence. He calls his starters tapas in keeping with the current rage, and one could easily make a meal out of a few of the dozen or more available daily. Among them you'll find such crossbreeds as perfect scallops on a bed of polenta accompanied by celery root remoulade with an apple vinaigrette, all of which manages to come together peacefully and blissfully ($5).

One of my favorites here is skate wing au poivre, made from one of the most wonderful but underused fish in the ocean ($5). The pale, pearl gray flesh is rich and tender, accented with a dotting of peppercorns and mated with mache (a currently fashionable, slightly bitter salad green) and bacon crumblings. The chicken tartlet, somewhere between a pizza and a tart, carries a hefty load of chorizo, onions, peppers, and tomatoes ($3).

The pastas may not bowl you over, except for the chicken fettuccine: in this dish the noodles themselves have been imbued with black peppercorns, the meat is grilled breast, and the sauce is based on melted leeks, corn, and creme fraiche ($9.50). A decided winner among the entrees was the grilled duck breast with leg confit, served with a fennel-leek tartlet and herbed polenta, all touched with a honey-pomegranate sauce that's a twist on the classic honey-vinegar the French put on their duck ($13). The roasted pork chop, presliced and fanned out over a bed of chorizo polenta ($16), was a straightforward joy.

Mare ("the sea"), which bills itself as the city's only Italian seafood restaurant, is the newest venture of Paul LoDuca, the former Carlucci's chef who opened Vinci on Halsted last year. Located on Clark just north of the river, Mare is a two-room affair, with a handsome bar as you enter and high, dark wood tables lining the wall. The main dining room is just a bit overwrought, with gauzy, multicolor banners draped from the ceiling, murals everywhere, and amusing ceramic fish hanging every eight feet. It's a little too busy, and the banners make for uneven lighting, though the colors are muted.

Nothing muted about the flavors, though, whether it was a huge slice of toasted bread (crostone) with shellfish ($4.95) or a square of firm, grilled polenta topped with savory salt cod and potato nuggets ($5.95). The cannellini beans that accompanied the sauteed shrimp--served with heads and tails on but bodies peeled--had absorbed a small tributary of tasty seafood broth ($7.50), and basil-laced mussels with a mound of polenta ($6.50) paled by comparison. We picked the simplest appetizer pizza: mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and anchovies atop a thick but light and puffy dough ($5.95). It was pleasant but unassertive; maybe the tuna and fennel would have been more exciting.

Gnocchi, the tiny potato-and-flour dumplings, may be my favorite pasta when done right--i.e. steamed to tenderness with a gentle seasoning--and these filled the bill. They had the added attraction of chopped langoustine in a gentle saffron sauce ($7.50 or $12.95). Capping off this bounty was a bright seafood stew from Viareggio ($14.95). An intense, pleasingly tart broth held chunks of tuna, sea bass, baby clams, mussels, squid, shrimp, and whole scallops in shell with their roe. Plunked in the center was a rock said to have come from the ocean floor, which was supposed to impart an intangible "sea" flavor. It helped keep the dish hot, anyway.

LoDuca has another winner here, though the menu doesn't have the intense purity of style that the slightly more expensive I Tre Merli has. Mare, at 400 N. Clark, is open Monday through Thursday 11:30 AM to 10 PM, Friday 11:30 to 11, and Saturday 5:30 to 11. Call 245-9933. I Tre Merli, 316 W. Erie, is open 11:30 AM to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 AM to 1 AM Friday and Saturday. Call 266-3100. Ti Amo gets credit for inventiveness and reasonable pricing, though its "more-is-more" approach sometimes results in flavors canceling each other out. Ti Amo, 444 W. Fullerton, is open Monday through Thursday 11:30 to 2 and 5 to 11; Friday 11:30 to 2 and 5 to midnight; Saturday 5 to midnight; and Sunday 10 to 2 and 5 to 10. Call 327-5100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

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