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Mother-and-daughter team Guadalupe Castellanos and Maria Huerta have taken over the cozy North Avenue dining room that used to belong to Dinotto, decorating it with folk art as an offshoot of their Lake Street restaurant, Barro. At BARRO CANTINA they depart from traditional Mexican food and focus more broadly on South American-influenced cuisine, offered in small portions. There are more than a dozen hot tapas: Picaditas surtidas are homemade masa rounds topped with the wonderfully contrasting flavors of sweet plantains, creamy guacamole, and salty soft cheese. Bocaditos de pollo, or croquettes of chicken and potato, come alive when dipped in the chipotle aioli they're served with. Jumbo garlic-marinated shrimp are wrapped in bacon and served with a tangy mango-tamarind relish. And barbacoa en barro is a specialty worth trying--tender shredded marinated beef steamed in a banana leaf, then served with lime and warm tortillas. There are also some cold options, along with specials like a stuffed chili of the day or a tiny cactus filled with grilled calamari and shrimp. The small plates are just right for sharing, but be sure to order at least two or three per person. The place exudes hospitality. Barro Cantina is at 163 W. North, 312-266-2484.

Earlier this year, Cucina Bella relocated a few blocks west; in April, northern Italian newcomer ZUCCO moved into its old space. The room has been opened up: two new semiprivate areas can be completely blocked off with floor-to-ceiling curtains as needed, and the front area's done in a burgundy and gray motif, with a long bar and more tables. While the menu is predictable, reasonable prices and close proximity to the Landmark Century movie theater make it a find. Expected options include pizza, antipasto, and a half-dozen chicken, veal, and pasta options; appetizers are a bit more appealing. There's a classic shrimp de jonghe--seasoned, bread-crumb-coated shrimp in a white-wine-and-garlic sauce--and a tasty meatless verdura alla griglia: layers of char-grilled eggplant, red peppers, and zucchini with creamy goat cheese set off by a balsamic vinegar reduction. Gnocchi, the only house specialty listed, comes with a choice of bolognese sauce, aioli, or a vodka cream sauce; the last is tasty, but doesn't compensate for the heaviness of the dumplings, which should be light and fluffy. A special one day of veal Madgelione--pounded veal rolled with prosciutto and mozzarella--was extremely salty and cheesy. None of the food here is for the heart- or waistline-conscious, to be sure. But most of the generously portioned entrees are under $15, and on Monday nights you can bring your own wine. Zucco is at 543 W. Diversey, 773-248-7263.

The sleek wall of windows on the facade of BAD DOG TAVERN--in the former Grecian Taverna space--hints at the major overhaul the building recently underwent. Inside, the old blue stone floors take on a completely different look next to bronze leather banquettes, spinning ceiling fans, and walls in cool tones of silver and gray. The front bar area has just a few tables near the windows and a long, dark oak bar; the predominant seating area is the back room, where the fireplace and orange mesh sconces cast a diffuse glow. Chef Michael Blaho's global-fusion-meets-contemporary-American menu is several steps above bar food. Yes, there's calamari, but it's panfried and served with a horseradish cocktail sauce. An order of tempura-style green beans comes with a lime-ginger-soy dipping sauce. There are pizzas with classic toppings, but for a late-night snack the sandwiches and salads are more interesting: spinach is tossed with juicy mandarin oranges, crispy tofu, and chow mein noodles in a ginger vinaigrette, while blackened salmon comes on a crusty French baguette with pickled red onion, bitter greens, and a cucumber-dill mayo. The ambitious entrees include grouper with julienned vegetables steamed in parchment paper with a lemon white-wine sauce (ours came slightly undercooked) and a double-cut pork chop glazed in maple syrup and served next to couscous adorned with caramelized onions, cherries, and dried apricots. The dozen draft beers include Staropramen Pils, Strongbow cider, Summit Hefe-Weizen, and de Koninck Belgian ale, while the wine list is limited. Servers are cheerful and eager to give accurate descriptions. Bad Dog Tavern is at 4535 N. Lincoln, 773-334-4040.

A four-story River North graystone is the perfect setting for the charming 1492 TAPAS BAR. Follow the winding staircase up and you'll find cozy seating areas on the second and third floors, each finished in earth tones with Spanish artifacts and decorated with stained-glass windows. The menu is loaded with the kinds of tapas you'd be likely to find on a side street in Madrid: jamon serrano (Spanish cured ham), tortilla de patatas (potato omelette), salpicon (chilled mixed seafood in a vinaigrette), and the wonderful pulpo a la plancha (Galician-style grilled octopus). The croquetas (deep-fried balls of chicken or fish) are a bit bland, but the champinones con jamon (mushrooms with cured ham) are extremely flavorful, balancing the earthiness of the mushrooms and the saltiness of the ham with a squeeze of lemon. You need not move beyond tapas to be satiated, but if you choose to, the Paella 1492 (for two) is a winner; a small traditional paella pan comes to the table full of perfectly cooked saffron rice studded with seafood, chicken, mussels, and tomatoes, all splashed with sherry. Another accomplished dish by chef John Borras, who grew up in Spain, is the black rice, a timbale of squid-ink-stained rice surrounded by plump char-grilled shrimp and squid. Those looking for a more meaty meal have limited options, but the solomillo de cerdo a la Moruna is a decent one: five thick slices of tender pork loin in a savory sherry-apple glaze with sweet mashed apples and sauteed carrots. A liquor license is pending; meanwhile there's no BYO allowed. 1492 Tapas Bar is at 42 E. Superior, 312-867-1492.

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


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