Saba is stealthy Italian that might surprise traditionalists | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Saba is stealthy Italian that might surprise traditionalists 

A new chef and a new outpost from low-key Logan Square restaurant group One of a Kind Hospitality make a case for themselves.

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click to enlarge Braised lamb pizza with ricotta and pea puree

Braised lamb pizza with ricotta and pea puree

Michelle Kanaar

The earth didn't rumble when a new Italian restaurant opened in Logan Square in mid-April. Saba Italian Kitchen & Bar barely said hello through the usual channels (Twitter, Instagram, etc) as it took over a corner spot on Milwaukee across from the Harding Tavern and De Noche Mexicana/Cafe con Leche and next to Red Star Liquors and the Walk In, the latest outpost joining the others in the growing mini empire belonging to homeboy Esam Hani and his One of a Kind Hospitality. It's interesting to see a low-key but fairly seasoned restaurant group steer clear of the typical strategy most inflict on the city's dwindling and desperate food media. That's especially true given that Hani's brought on a relative unknown in chef Mark Bestmann, a newcomer late of Boston enoteca Coppa prior to a brief stop on the line at Bad Hunter.

I thought a long-needed local moratorium on Italian openings had been imposed, but here we are with a broad, regionally nonspecific concept of pizzas and pastas, a few meaty entrees, a section of "classic" Italian-American dishes, and hot and cold shared plates, some of which might raise eyebrows among traditionalists but some that might just win them over too.

An arancini Brundlefly—lightly fried orbs stuffed with al dente Arborio rice but dominated by moist salt cod, more like Portuguese pasteis de bacalao—is delicious no matter how you view it, especially when swiped through malt vinegar aioli. Steamed clams wallow in an intensely corny broth made from husks, cobs, and juiced kernels. Cotechino, the normally girthy New Year's sausage, comes bratwurst size, sliced on the bias, and served atop creamy cannellini beans, its grind redolent of orange, nutmeg, burnt cinnamon, and star anise. An odd pairing of savory deep-fried zeppole and slices of mortadella needs some kind of sauce for sponging, while fried brussels sprouts, the single stand-alone vegetable on the menu, rise above the cliche they've become with a bright splash of grapefruit and a briny dusting of bottarga. Soft, springy pork meatballs take a more conventional form, but with the accompanying duo of red sauce and salsa verde, they reach peaks of umami that might make you squint.

Conversely, an arresting-looking romaine salad, dressed with za'atar yogurt and served in a bowl with Parmesan crisps lining the edge like merlons atop a castle wall, is oddly underseasoned. It's called a Caesar, but if that's true you can call me Brutus. There's a similarly ascetic touch with salt in the pizzas, which range from a conventional Margherita to an outlier dressed with braised lamb and ricotta mixed with pea puree. The crusts on these pies are pleasant, stippled with char if short on cornicione, but they need sodium to make their surfaces come alive.

Pastas are a mixed bag. Tangles of tagliatelle are nicely al dente but oversauced in a creamy beef and pork ragout. Maltagliati, sheets of flat pasta made with wheat and farro flours, have a mouthfeel reminiscent of burlap, but the toasted farro and sherried mushroom ragout that tops them would be great with a more tender noodle. Meanwhile agnolotti filled with lemony mascarpone with fresh spring peas are soft, silky and altogether delicious, a thrilling taste of spring. The most striking bowl features spongy but dark, almost ash-colored gnocchi, their dough mixed with charred potato skins (a tribute to the peasant tradition of making flour from ash), producing a deeply smoky taste that contrasts well with glazed turnips and spring onion, mint, and parsley pesto.

From the "classics" list, eggplant Parmesan is all wrong: Unbreaded and cooked and delivered to the table in stone ovenware, it arrives stewy and not at all crispy, but at least it has some brightly acidic citric qualities to it. It's still the most disappointing dish I tried at Saba.

Desserts feature a devastatingly good blondie drenched in eggy sabayon spiked with the restaurant's namesake, a thick, sweet red-grape reduction. A so-called chocolate panna cotta performs more like a light chocolate ganache; it's topped with salted caramel whipped cream and accompanied by a slab of chewy, crunchy-fresh granola.

The cocktail program features a selection of spiked cream sodas, the vanilla-Averna much sweeter than you'd expect with cold-brew coffee as its foundation, as well as an amari negroni that's far too smooth and sweet to be considered one. The wine list has 40 reds, whites, and sparkling wines, all from the Boot excepting the Antxiola, a Basque rosé txakoli that might make you levitate.

Maybe you'll look at dishes like the panna cotta, the arancini, the cotechino, and the gnocchi as a betrayal of your nonna's hard-won kitchen chops even as you shovel bite after bite down your gullet and scrape the last spoonfuls up with whatever crusts you can snatch from your tablemates. But that's the way many dishes at Saba undercut your assumptions about Italian food. You may not see it coming, but you're not sorry when it does.  v

msula@chicagoreader.com

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