Transformations: Tastes of Sardinia and the Dominican Republic; Bar Food in Boys Town 

Il Covo

2152 N. Damen

773-862-5555

"Italian men making Italian food" appears to be the motto of the revamped Il Covo: I heard it twice on the phone and once in person when I went to scope it out. But it's not just marketing talk--the concept works. This bilevel Bucktown Italian spot--under new management and with new chefs in the kitchen--is much improved from its earlier days as an uninspired purveyor of Australian-Italian fusion cuisine. The team (which includes vets of Pizza D.O.C. and Trattoria D.O.C.) offers a solid menu inspired by rustic Sardinian cooking, with seafood, roasted meats, and hearty ragus taking center stage. We started with an ample plate of lightly grilled vegetables--zucchini, radicchio, endive, asparagus--accompanied by a decadent grilled disk of melted scamorza cheese and a sheet of buttery beef carpaccio with arugula and shavings of mild pecorino Sardo. Bucatini amatriciana was a broad bowl of long, thick noodles dressed in a sauce of pancetta, onion, and tomato--immensely satisfying, if a little salty thanks to the generous amount of bacon. Pollo alla Sarda, a pair of chicken paillards rolled around mozzarella and prosciutto, was equally rich (and again, kinda salty), but the flavors were well balanced. The dark decor remains the same for now (as do the slightly too-high prices), but co-owner Dominico Fronteddu says they plan to spiff the place up soon, after his parents come over from Sardinia with a load of carpets and stuff. --Martha Bayne

Punta Cana

1024 N. Ashland

773-252-7200

Fans of Rudy's Taste will be sorry to learn that the festive little storefront serving Guatemalan, Dominican, Mexican, and Puerto Rican food is no more. But don't despair: chef Rudy Figueroa occasionally can be found in the kitchen, training cooks or helping Johnny Mora's wife and co-owner, Elizabeth, and her mother, at the new Punta Cana. Plainer than its predecessor, Punta Cana is mostly Dominican, but some Italian nights are planned--"people in the Dominican Republic eat a lot of Italian food," says Mora. Variations on plantains and empanadas currently dominate the limited appetizers; I preferred the piquant shredded chicken empanadas to the mildly seasoned ground beef variety, but at $2.50 for two, both beat fast food for greasy, deep-fried crunchy goodness. The highlight of the meal was whole red snapper with coconut sauce, a bargain at $14: also fried (but not greasy), the crispy scored fish was decorated with thin lime slices, set off by a subtle coconut sauce, and accompanied by grilled vegetables as well as rice and peas. Goat with spices in red sauce sounded intriguing, but the meat was dry and so chewy that the flavorful sauce and sweet fried plantains didn't quite compensate. Skip the dense, cheesy flan but be sure to try the aptly named morir sonando ("to die dreaming"), a fizzy Dominican blend of orange juice, milk, sugar, and ice. There's a whole lineup of fresh juices and shakes, and Punta Cana is permanently BYO. --Anne Spiselman

Halsted's Bar & Grill

3441 N. Halsted

773-348-9696

Let's start with the onion rings, something Philip K. Dick might have invented as the perfect drug: each puffy hoop big as a doughnut and studded with coarse salt, the Bass Ale batter and the onion nearly atomizing the moment you bite down. It's exactly what you want when you've got a night's worth of alcohol in your bloodstream, and sure enough, with a late-night menu served till one on Fridays and Saturdays, the newly reopened Halsted's Bar & Grill is well on its way to cornering the market on bar food in Boys Town. The former X/O, which was lively but almost genteel, has been transformed into something like Sidetrack with good food, complete with overly loud music, a large see-and-be-seen patio in the back that's always jammed with guys, and a video jukebox. The menu features burgers, sandwiches, and salads, all in very hearty portions, as well as some slightly adventurous variations on old favorites. Meat loaf--a deliciously spicy version served with creamy mashed potatoes and green beans--was outstanding, but the Athena pizza suffered under a bulky load of toppings (feta, asparagus, and cherry tomatoes). Service was attentive, but the kitchen may be suffering from its own success--it took more than 45 minutes for our entrees to appear. Then again, if you're sitting around with a group of friends, you probably won't mind. --Rob Christopher

Closed

Ambria 2300 N. Lincoln Park West

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by A. Jackson.

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