Ciccio Mio is not simply “a” nostalgic restaurant. It’s the nostalgicrestaurant, the Italian-American amphitheater of Frank, Dean, and Tony. CiccioMio is the red sauce joint of your dreams, the greatest common divisor of everygood thing that every Italian-American restaurant has done in the century (orso) since the diaspora wove the trodden souls of Naples, Palermo, and Genoainto the fabric of domestic life. Does that mean Ciccio Mio is the best Italianrestaurant in Chicago? Why, yes, it does. Tied for “best,” at least, dependingon just what one considers “Italian” and whether diaspora culture the wholecountry over is destined for preservation or renovation. “Authenticity,” youguess, is the name of the game, and Hogsalt’s newest restaurant brings one ofmodern dining’s most contentious questions to the fore.
Ciccio Mio quietly rose from the ashes of Radio Anago—the Japanese restaurant sandwiched between Gilt Bar and Bavette’s (two other Hogsalt properties)—in October. Radio Anago had closed in May—one year and two months since opening—earning some punishing reviews from local critics. The restaurant was a rare misstep from Brendan Sodikoff’s hospitality group, which has mastered diverse fare like burgers, barbecue, ramen, ice cream drinks, and matcha lattes throughout its properties in Chicago. While your admiration for Bavette’s is well-documented, you never made the short walk over to Radio Anago during its time in the space. Having opened in the spring of 2018, the Japanese restaurant was just shy of the “omakase boom” that began with Omakase Yume in July of the same year and expanded with the opening of Takeya, Kyōten, and Mako in turn.
Rather than form the crest of that wave of new chef-driven sushiexperiences in the city, Radio Anago seemed like Hogsalt’s answer to Sushi-Sanor Momotaro. Invariably described in the press as “dimly lit,” the venue seemeda lounge space as much as it was a restaurant. Yes, there were a half dozenmaki rolls, a dozen different bites of nigiri, and a much-maligned friedchicken covered in edible gold. There were also saketinis, sake bombs, cocktailshots, and “party shots” in four colors: fuscia, cyan, buttercream, and slimegreen. Looking at the menu now, Radio Anago actually seems like a pleasantplace to drink the night away. It doesn’t take itself too seriously—which,perhaps, was a bane at a time when Chicagoans craved a more upscale Japaneseexperience. That is all to say, Radio Anago might have done well in thispost-Gaijin era, yet what the city received in its place is much moreconsequential.
Reportedly, Sodikoff had originally sought a quick turnaround for the defunctrestaurant space. It was to remain Japanese yet open as a new concept with morehot dishes that went beyond the fried chicken and sushi offerings. Could therehave been savory pancakes? Who knows, as somewhere along the way the Japaneseconcept was ditched altogether in favor of something strangely underrepresentedin Chicago at the moment: Italian-American cuisine. Yes, Spiaggia is stillsublime. Monteverde is its magnificent, more casual cugino, but bothrestaurants are clearly inspired by the way Italians eat in Italy (rather thandescendant of diaspora cuisine). That Italian-American immigrant cuisinecan still be seen, just barely, on Taylor Street at places like The Rosebud.However, the cuisine traces its roots back to Gene & Georgetti (est. 1941),Italian Village (est. 1927), and Colosimo’s (est. 1914 by crime boss “Big Jim”Colosimo). Those who emigrated from Italy, as poor as they were, found inAmerica a bounty they had never before seen. Suddenly, there existed meat—andplenty of it. Heaping portions of pasta, veal and chicken parm, bread and oil,roasted garlic, baked clams, calamari, and Chianti in its straw basket. You’resure that patrons could always find something to whet their whistle duringProhibition too.
Sometime from then until now, a craving for “real” Italian food tookroot. Of course, most everyone in this country grows up thinking caesar salad,spaghetti, meatballs, pizza, and cannoli form the end sum of Italian cookery.Perhaps, if they have visited their local “Italian” restaurant, your averageAmerican knows to expect red-checkered tablecloths and chicken cooked ten ways(parmesan, vesuvio, milanese, francese, calabrese, marsala, piccata, italiano,saltimbocca, and oreganato—but who’s counting?). In short, they know to expect“abbondanza,” a sort of abundance going out of style just as quickly as theaverage American’s waistband has expanded many decades after the diaspora. Theheaping portions that kept the Italian-American pavers, bricklayers, butchers,and bakers going as they carved out a place in this country are no longernecessary. Their target audience has worked their way off of Taylor Street andinto the suburbs, and the next immigrant group—with its own comfort food—hastaken root.
Today, the vast majority of those opening Italian restaurants—be theyItalian-American or not—do not look backwards in American history forinspiration, but, rather, they are inspired by la dolce vita ofcontemporary Italy. Yes, they are inspired by tradition. Hundreds of years oftradition. But they do not pass those techniques through the sieve of poverty,alienation, and unfamiliarity that characterized the Italian-Americanexperience and yielded, when the dust finally settled, a distinct diasporacuisine for which many people are nostalgic. Thus, one is left with new,gleaming temples to Italian cuisine that deny any relation to those of anItalian-American persuasion. At the same time, the surviving restaurantsserving the diaspora cuisine grow decrepit, let their standards slide, and—suddenly—disappearaltogether.
Of course, Chicago has had its share of Italian restaurants open overthe past decade. While some have certainly embraced a casual, more comfortablestyle, their menus unanimously symbolize the extrication of “Italian” cuisinefrom its hyphenated, diaspora roots. RPM Italian, for example, minglesItalian-American classics like garlic bread, lobster fra diavolo, and chickenparm with imported burrata, Roman-style artichokes, and a titanic BisteccaFiorentina. Gibsons Italia, which features veal parm and spaghetti on itsmenu, also does not shy away from touting A5 Miyazaki beef or “Italian heritageorganic stone ground flour” for its pastas. Formento’s, you might think, mayfit the bill. Yet here, too, the seemingly diaspora-inspired dishes like“nonna’s meatballs” and brick chicken yield to pastas like paccheri, strozzapreti,canestri, and gigli (no, not the movie) well beyond what anyItalian-American could likely pronounce. Even Siena Tavern and Bar Siena—bothfrom an Italian chef who has shown he understands the American palate—areperfectly fine serving brick chicken diavolo but sacrifice the remainder of thediaspora canon in favor of dishes that are either more American or moreItalian. Even Mama’s Boy—the River North “peasant Italian” restaurantopened by Rosebud—indulged in high cuisine dishes like risotto mixed in a wheelof parmigiano. Despite consciously trying to update the diaspora cuisine, theprimely-located spot closed after just two and a half years.
Truth be told, the mix of influences seen on these menus representsthe evolution of Italian-American cuisine. For, it is not as though Italianimmigrants did not wish to cook as they did in their homeland. The diasporacuisine, as previously mentioned, was shaped by the conditions these immigrantsfound upon their arrival in the United States. As those conditions werealleviated, it makes sense that the “Italian style” of cookery could be betterenacted both through the easier attainment of imported products and a betterfamiliarity with fresh, indigenous ingredients that could be adapted to classicrecipes. In many ways, then, the Italian-American cuisine of which you speak ismore like a collection of dishes than a clear style of cooking. Does that meanthese dishes cannot be improved upon? No, as Ciccio Mio will show.Italian-American cuisine demands a backwards style of cooking—one that prizesexcess, comfort, and a meager pantry of “authentic” ingredients like garlic,oil, cheese, and canned tomatoes. From within those confines, great things canstill emerge. Carbone has proved that in New York City, and Ciccio Mio surelyaims to do the same in Chicago.
You have visited Ciccio Mio five or six times now since its openinglast October with consistent notes, so—as usual—this review will be a compositeof those experiences. With that settled, let us begin. Walking through CiccioMio’s front door, it must be said, is a little different than going toBavette’s next door. Both restaurants boast their own branded awnings (sothere’s no chance of mixing them up), but they build a sense of ambiance indifferent ways. Bavette’s congregates customers in a small, sparsely adorned vestibulewhere reservations can be checked and coats collected before entrance into therestaurant proper. Though patrons can slip past the hosts and hostesses to trytheir luck at the bar, the room—nonetheless—has a bit of a “velvet rope”effect. The glory of the steakhouse’s timeless design is guarded by one extralayer of security, a front-of-house roadblock that functions to control theflow of walk-ins relative to the limited lounge space and extended meals thatoccur at many of the tables. The real test, of course, comes from judging justhow politely would-be guests are informed of the long wait they will face for atable. Yet, suffice it to say, plenty of patrons are deterred at the door,leaving the essence of the restaurant space obscured and, perhaps, saving thesurprise for that lucky occasion they will be able to dine at the restaurant.
Entering Ciccio Mio, on the otherhand, is like stepping into asepia-toned movie set. So much so, you really wonder if Hogsalt didn’t timeRadio Anago’s re-concepting with the release of The Irishman. It is nosecret that the restaurant group possesses an incomparable ability to make“new” spaces look and feel “old,” and the work at this location is their bestyet. Pulling open the door, customers first come face to face with a towering,brass and copper-toned espresso machine. It sits at the middle of the front barthat also serves—at on end—as the host’s stand. The wood of the bar—the samewood that panels the walls and forms the shelving—shines back against the warmglow of candles, cut crystal lamps, and chandeliers. It’s dark, afterall, a smoke-filled room of the highest order, an antique space that anytourist would think was one of the city’s historic restaurants
As soon as one comes face-to-face with that espresso machine, the hostor hostess pounces. They take name, coat, hat, and bags and—after placing anumbered tag into your hand—whisk you through a curtained portal into therestaurant proper. You are not sure how Ciccio Mio handles walk-ins (though, atthe time you are writing this, the restaurant remains one of the very toughestreservations in the city). On the far wall from the front bar, the roomfeatures a reclining couch, a lone armchair, and a coffee table all on an arearug with five rows of shelving lined with ancient-looking bottles of Italian amari.The wall that form’s the restaurant’s façade is lined with a few leather barstools which look out—through thickly-curtained windows and, yes, more amari—atKinzie Street. All in all (and, especially, relative to Bavette’s), Ciccio Mio’sfront room functions brilliantly as a parlor. Its design is a naturalcomplement to the dining room’s, and the small seating area is a picturesqueplace to serve cocktails to guests whose tables are running behind. Does CiccioMio accept walk-ins at all? You would guess not, for this lounge area wouldgrow much too crowded if it were used as waiting room. Instead, it acts as apitch-perfect first impression, a chance to get in the mood before moving intothe meal itself.
Once the curtain is drawn and one steps through the threshold into thedining room proper, Ciccio Mio’s uncanny resemblance to a mob movie set becomeseven more clear. To begin, there’s not a bad seat in the house. Both walls areentirely lined with banquettes, allowing for four tables of four and twohorseshoe booths for up to six guests per side. There are also two tables fortwo running down the middle of the dining room (on either side of a long,antique server’s station)—but that’s it! That’s the entirety of the restaurant:a single, self-contained, magical room. For the first time diner, the reaction mustbe something like “wow, this isn’t Bavette’s.” Correct, Ciccio Mio is much moreintimate, much more focused in its service and some of the bells and whistles ahigher staff-to-customer ratio allows for.
Of course, the décor in the dining room helps. The booths are finishedin red velvet and basked in the gentle light of crystal sconces. There areadditional crystal chandeliers and more wood paneling—with every inch of wallspace behind the booths being covered in ornate picture frames of various sizesand shapes. The images they contain are nondescript enough—landscapes,engravings, and anonymous begowned beauties—but they work in concert to lendthe space a sense of history. At the back of the room, a standing-only barcrafts amaro cocktails for the room with a solitary table (with that telltalered-checkered tablecloth) positioned front and center of it. It is therestaurant’s most explicit visual nod to the Italian-American tradition theyhave so earnestly rejuvenated, and you’d be lying if you said there wasn’t aspecial romance to that relatively unglamorous spot.
If you told someone there was a Japanese restaurant here mere monthsago, they would think you are joking. Ciccio Mio’s sense of timelessness isreally that strong. Mind you, the restaurant never descends into parody.Materials like velvet and wood, like candlelight and the bric-a-brac that linesthe walls are not distinctly Italian. Rather, they represent an olderera of luxury that corresponded to the heyday of the Italian-American restaurantas the absolute height of hospitality in places like New York, Philadelphia,and Chicago. Think of the classic speakeasy or the private supperclub—secretive establishments that were often run by Italian immigrants withlittle overt reference to their homeland. First and foremost, Ciccio Mio—likeBavette’s or any Hogsalt property—evokes the very best of early twentiethcentury Chicago. From that starting point, the group injects a bit ofhospitality spirit: be it French brasserie, Cajun, American diner, orItalian-American. Because of this, Ciccio Mio seems like a classic Chicagorestaurant run and maintained by Italian-Americans rather than a too-conscious,heavy-handed reconstruction. Of course, in reality, it is a lovingreconstruction—albeit, one that never tries too hard and evaporates theessential charm it aims for.
Once you get seated, the real fun begins. As you might have mentionedin your review of Bavette’s, the servers there operate with a certain flair forthe dramatic that enhances the atmosphere developed by the restaurant’s décor.There, owing to the steakhouse setting, waiters are broad-shouldered,salt-and-pepper fellows with silver tongues and strong jaws. Not all of thewaiters, of course. It’s not a Gibsons restaurant. Yet this “style” of serviceis on-theme and, in some ways, approximates the hospitality of the era.Bavette’s, too, has plenty of talented female servers who—as the corollary tothe type you just described—are unafraid to unleash a bit of banter and createthe same effect at the table. That is, one of good fun, warmth, and—overtime—genuine regards and appreciation.
You have been graced with the same male server for the past three orfour visits and find his style of service offers a bit of a twist on theBavette’s style (or, mind you, on that seen at Carbone, which you think is evenmore boisterous and broad-shouldered). This server looks, moves, and talks likeJeff Mauro (the Chicago-born Food Network personality), which is to say herepresents a softer, smoother Italian-American style without any hint ofirritability and only the slightest bit of gesticulation. In this manner,Ciccio Mio avoids being labeled a “theme restaurant” where the theatricality ofthe service staff is overdone. Rather than making the diner feel they are beingserved by an “Italian” (or, even worse, an Italian “gangster”), the front ofhouse staff accentuates the warmth, humility, and leisurely luxury of thedining experience. Thus, the service strikes one as familiar (embracing the feelingrather than the reality of classic Italian-American hospitality) withoutdemanding the staff descend into parody. They need simply provide excellentservice and dwell at tables just a few seconds longer to provide a genuine,personal touch. The overall intimacy of the dining room and the restaurant’sstaff-to-customer ratio ensures this is easily accomplished. Bavette’s hasalways impressed you with the sincerity of its service given the scale of itsoperation. At Ciccio Mio, the stage is much smaller and the spotlight muchbigger, but the hospitality staff is up to the challenge and even surpasses,you think, the high bar set at the steakhouse next door.
After a brief welcome and introduction to the restaurant by theserver, you finally have a chance to turn to the menu. To drink, Ciccio Miooffers a selection of classic cocktails with some Italian-inspired twists—likea dirty martini with gorgonzola olives or an old fashioned made with hazelnut.Of course, there are also spritzes, a bellini, and a negroni on offer. Owing torow after row of amaro bottles lining the shelves of the restaurant’s frontroom, the herbal liqueurs are also featured prominently among the drinks. Fivelighter varieties are featured above the list of cocktails as “aperitivi”while an amaro shaved ice is given special billing at the bottom of the list.For the shaved ice, customers may choose from the three heavier amari optionslisted or take a look at the full list of options in the wine and spirits book.Whatever you do, just be sure to thoroughly stir the shaved ice should you getit, as a certain amount of dilution is essential to cut some of the bitternessfor all but the most experienced amaro buffs.
Turning the menu over, you come face-to-face with a rather expansivelist of wines by the glass. All the bases are covered, from several styles ofsparkling (prosecco, Franciacorta, Moscato d’Asti) wines, familiar (sauvignonblanc, chardonnay) and unfamiliar (fiano d’avellino) white wines, a rosé (madefrom barbera), and ten types of red wine from obscure (pinot nero, cannonau) tocoveted (Chianti, merlot/cabernet “Super Tuscan” blend, Barbaresco). To CiccioMio’s great credit, each of these wines is given a description of no more thanthree words. For example, the Alto Adige sauvignon blanc is labeled as “cool,herbal, concentrated” and the Barbaresco as “refined, leathery, autumnal.” Thebest descriptions draw on metaphor, as in the cannonau being described as the “châteauneufof Sardinia.” You have seen these descriptors work to great effect on Galit’swine list, and they also work here to demystify the indigenous grapes thatoffer customers better value and drinking experiences than the best-knownItalian wines or their American counterparts.
This convention carries over to every bottle on the full wine list,which offers plenty of value below $100 but is deep enough to offerbottles—particularly of Nebbiolo—that range from $200 – $400 and even beyond$500. Such prices may shock the uninitiated; however, just as at Bavette’s,Hogsalt is able to offer both allocated and back-vintage bottles at competitiveprices. The list may only be a fraction of that offered at Spiaggia, but youwould likely pay close to double the price for some of the nicer red winesoffered at Ciccio Mio. That being said, there simply aren’t any bottles ofwhite wine that cost more than $100, and one certainly does not need to spendto drink well here. Personally, you were quite happy drinking GiacomoConterno’s 2015 Barbera d’Alba at around $160 per bottle until you polished offthe last of it. Nonetheless, customers cannot go wrong choosing from such agenerous wine list, and you think that Hogsalt, as a group, excels particularlywell in this category. A selection of five Italian beers (many you have neverheard of), one Michigan cider, and six spirit-free options round off the beverageoptions.
Moving on to the food, Ciccio Mio’s menu offers some 25 items spreadacross six categories (excluding dessert). While these dishes have generallystayed the same since the restaurant’s opening, you have seen one special makeits way onto the main menu, another special replace it, and one new entréeappear altogether. Surely, eating here is not so complicated as choosingbetween those ten types of chicken preparation. The menu is incrediblyfocused—like Bavette’s, which really has not deviated from its classics in allthis time—but leaves room for new creations. Personally, you would like to seeveal and pork entrees on the menu. Baked clams, too, which are presented as a wonderfullyrefined trio at Carbone, would be right at home with the other appetizers.However, you have little doubt that Ciccio Mio will expand its offerings in duecourse. Right now, there is plenty of work to be done simply convincing acontemporary audience that these “heavy” Italian-American dishes can bestreamlined and made desirable yet again. All the focus right now is onexecution—and it shows.
Starting with the antipasti section, you would heartilyrecommend the whole roasted artichoke with parmesan-herb stuffing. While theheart of the artichoke is a toothsome delight, diners eating the outer leaves willneed to scrape the “meat” of the vegetable off using their teeth. This yieldsonly a slight amount of artichoke, but the stuffing and accompanying tonnatosauce (made from mayonnaise, olive oil preserved tuna, and lemon juice)ensures a pleasurable bite of food. The “premium burrata,” too, is well worthordering but should be carefully timed with the bread’s arrival. You see, sometime after the drink order is taken (but before the food), the server may offerCiccio Mio’s bread service, a mouthwatering tray of warm, incredibly crispy focacciameets ciabatta-style bread served with small bowls of housemade giardinieraand olive oil. Balsamic vinegar and grated parmigiano are offered tableside forthe oil, along with a few slices of housemade salami fresh from the old-schoolslicer that sits atop the serving station. It’s just the sort of easyhospitality—the earnest sharing of veritable culinary treasures—that makes yourheart flutter. But do not eat it all too quickly! For if you happen to orderthat creamy, milky, magnificent burrata and then finish your bread, it willtake a short while to put together another platter. And it goes without sayingthat it’s rather hard to look at the cheese—let alone enjoy it—without a crustclose at hand.
You have yet to try the robiola (a cow and sheep’s milk cheese)encapsulated in a phyllo crust or the prosciutto di parma (aged for animpressive 700 days), but—judging by the quality of the burrata—you haveconfidence in Hogsalt’s ability to source exceptional Italian ingredients andserve them without screwing up. Good arancini, on the other hand,requires a bit more technique. Cheese-filled, bread crumb-coated, and thenfried, the rice balls are a mainstay on both Italian and Italian-American menusto this day. (Funnily enough, it forms one of the few undisturbed links betweenthe two cuisines). Ciccio Mio’s rendition relies on a classic mozzarellafilling but flavors its rice with a bit of saffron for added complexity.Texturally, the outer coating of breading is slightly crisp so as not tointerfere with the softness of the rice and even softer strands of gooeycheese. Each contrasts the other, and the Calabrian chili aioli servedalongside the dish does a nice job adding a hint of spice as well as atemperature contrast. Rounding out the antipasti section are CiccioMio’s meatballs, a blend of beef, pork, and veal (as it should be) served in acute little pot with enough tomato sauce left over to adorn whatever breadremains after the burrata. The balls themselves—you count four or five to anorder—are smaller than most in the city, yet they possess a cleanness oftexture and intensity of flavor that stand as a true refinement of the meatballform. Could they be the very best in Chicago? Well, they beat Monteverde’s, andthey beat the renditions at any of the historic Italian-American restaurants intown (which can be filler-laden monstrosities). Ciccio Mio nails thequintessence of the meatball both in flavor and presentation. You would like tobe introduced to any better set in this city.
The “hot soup & house salad” section that follows the antipastionly contains two items—wedding soup (a lighter variant of minestrone thatsubstitutes pasta for mini meatballs) and a house salad (salami, olives,cheese, and lettuce in a red wine vinaigrette). You have yet to try either ofthese classics during any of your visits simply because their familiarflavors—no matter how comforting—get in the way of enjoying a larger selectionof pasta. Given the majesty shown throughout the rest of Ciccio Mio’s menu, youwould be shocked if they erred on these comparably simply dishes. Plus, the onespecial that the restaurant has reliably offered during your dinners hasinvariably landed in this category. It is described as an “Italian seafoodsalad,” that is, a cooked-then-chilled selection of shrimp, squid, king crab,mussels, and whitefish in a light lemon vinaigrette. To you, the seafood saladhas always seemed the most dangerous dish on any Italian-American restaurant’smenu. It presents a more direct test of the kitchen’s ingredient quality thanthe vast majority of dishes than come breaded or buried in sauce. At CiccioMio, the different pieces of seafood each sing with plump, giving textures andan undercurrent of sweetness accentuated by the citrus. It’s a nicemedium-sized plate advertised as a “full pound of seafood” for something like$28. You would like to see it earn a permanent place on the menu, should thequality of the product stay consistent (which, judging by Bavette’s stalwartseafood towers, will not be a problem at all).
The primi section of the restaurant’s menu, truth be told, isreally what most guests are waiting for. Six different shapes of pasta arepaired with the same number of sauces (and a selection of other ingredients) tocreate distinct creations which capture the glory of the old-school red saucejoints. First, there is the orecchiette pugliese—the signature dish ofthe Puglia region. Ear-shaped pasta is prepared al dente in the cookingwater left over from a batch of rapini then combined with spicy pork sausage,parm, a drizzle of olive oil, and that very same rapini. The result is alightly dressed, highly textural dish that—nonetheless—delights the palate withits spice, bitterness, and underlying umami. The orecchiette might bethe most “Italian” of the pastas on Ciccio Mio’s menu, but it stands as atestament to what the cuisine can accomplish (either in the “old” country ornew) without the use of tomatoes.
Listed second out of six: the black truffle bucatini. Now, you knowthat Gilt Bar—the other Hogsalt property next door—has offered its own versionof this dish for a couple years now. At $22 (compared to $18 over at Gilt Bar),you are not exactly expecting this bucatini to come buried in slices offresh Périgord truffle, but what did appear impressed you. From first sight,you could tell the quality of the noodles, which were spooled together withenough thickness—enough heft—to form a self-structured nest in the middle ofthe bowl. There, they would be topped with a hearty shaving of pecorino cheeseand studded with microscopic chunks of the black truffle. “Not bad,” you think.“No truffle oil here.” And the taste of those truffles does comethrough—subtly, but in accordance with the price being paid. Ultimately, thesharpness of the pecorino and smooth, pleasing chew of the bucatini ensurethat the dish would succeed even without that extra dose of luxury. You wouldlove to set this dish head-to-head against Monteverde’s “cacio e whey pepe,”where the truffles—though freshly shaven—certainly yield no special flavor towhat is ultimately a very similar preparation.
Perhaps the most refined of the six pasta preparations, Ciccio Mio’s tortellinie zucca indulges in the classic combination of squash-stuffed pasta and asage brown butter sauce. $19 will get you about a dozen of the “ring” or“navel” shaped pieces, which are given an Italian-American twist through theaddition of mortadella (a traditional deli meat made of cured pork) andalmond cookies (another classic, typically called amaretti) to thestuffing. Rather than a sauce, the tortellini comes in a shallow pool ofveal stock that tastes even better upon absorbing the cheese grated on top ofthe dish. Though this is the only pasta on the restaurant’s menu that youhaven’t tried, the combination is one of your personal favorites. Further, youthink this dish—conceptually—stands as a shining example of how one can add a“new” dish to the Italian-American canon. Just as those immigrants approximatedtraditional Italian recipes using American ingredients, Ciccio Mio isretrofitting a classic tortellini e zucca with playful, “peasant food”touches like the mortadella and the almond cookies. Resourcefulness, perhapsthat’s the word that distinguishes the hyphenated Italian cookery. Nonetheless,though you wish you could say so firsthand, the combination sounds like itworks, with the saltiness of the cured pork and nutty/sweet notes of the cookieworking with the sage to draw out the deeper flavor of the squash.
So, you lied, and two of the pasta shapes are actually the same.Ciccio Mio’s bucatini makes another appearance—this time, not withtruffle, but with king crab. At $28, it is comfortably the most expensive pastaon the menu (and noticeably more pricey than RPM Italian’s spicy king crabspaghetti at $19). However, it must be said that Hogsalt’s crab pasta doescontain close to twice the amount of LEYE’s (and those familiar with yourreviews can trust that the crab is just a little bit better quality atHogsalt too). Instead of pecorino, the seafood preparation of bucatiniarrives in a sauce of brown butter, lemon, and chive that works perfectly tobridge the thematic gap between “fine seafood” and pasta (which, barring thefamous fra’ diavolo preparation rarely contains any shellfish nicer thanshrimp, clams, and mussels in Italian-American cuisine). Could you pick afavorite between the black truffle and king crab bucatini? One is a playon cacio e pepe (with all the richness that comes with it), and the other avariant on linguini with clams or any simple seafood pasta that succeedsthrough the interplay of sweet, citric, and buttery flavors. Neither has quiteenough of their luxury ingredient to really blow you away, but they’retasty, well-balanced, and both nice vehicles for the noodles (which shouldalways, you think, be the shining star).
Moving on, you now come to perhaps the most beloved of allItalian-American pasta preparations. No, not spaghetti and meatballs, butsomething more orange-tinged, something more sacrilegious. “Spicy vodkarigatoni,” as Ciccio Mio’s menu terms it, combines the thick, bent, tube-shapedpasta with a luscious sauce made from tomatoes, heavy cream, and a touch ofthat titular spirit to bring everything together. Surely, nobody has evertasted the vodka in a vodka sauce, but there are other reasons to like it.While the acidity of a tomato sauce and the out-and-out richness of an Alfredocan both be a bit too one-note, together they form quite the partnership.Arriving at the table with nothing more than a dusting of grated cheese and afew leaves of basil, Ciccio Mio’s rigatoni wants for nothing more. The noodles areonly lightly coated in the sauce and served on a plate, rather than a bowl,which betrays only the slightest of puddles sitting underneath the pasta. Eachof the elbows—and yes, it is quite hard to bite into more than one at a time—isa gem. The creamy outer coating hits the tongue first, followed by the ridgedtexture that forms the shell of the rigatoni. After just a couple chews, thecrux of the noodle collapses on the palate, unleashing a jetsam of vodka saucethat coats the gums and infuses those last few bites with the full breadth ofthe cream and tomato combination. Personally, your childhood red sauce jointalways served “eight-finger” cavatelli with its vodka sauce, but you can haveno complaints here. The spicy vodka rigatoni is a showstopper, a masterpiece ofcanonical Italian-American cooking, and something you imagine will never leavethis restaurant’s menu.
Ciccio Mio’s sixth of six pasta offerings ups the ante even more:lasagna. Rather than a traditional Italian-American lasagna made from layerafter layer of sheet pasta stacked vertically in a baking pan, this version ismade in the “rotolo” style wherein the ingredients are placed betweenlayers of pasta and then rolled like an untucked burrito. After congealing inthe fridge, the rolled lasagna may be cut into segments and baked in the ovenwith all its inner sections exposed to the heat. While this “rotolo”preparation may not typically be applied to lasagna, Italians do have a proudtradition of roulade style pastas and Italian-Americans their braciole (adish of rolled and stuffed meat). Thus, applying this technique to lasagnarepresents something of a mish-mash of dishes—just the sort, you think, thatwould be right at home as part of a diaspora cuisine. Further, Ciccio Mio’slasagna is made in a “Bolognese” style. Rather than the usual layers ofground meat, tomato sauce, and ricotta, the restaurant uses a ragù of pork,beef, onions, carrots, celery, and tomatoes combined with bechamel and parmigiano.In this way, the dish is somewhat more “Americanized” in structure whiletasting more traditionally “Italian” in its ingredients. It’s a shrewd choice,as the classic lasagna can be a bit too much of a good thing, and Hogsalt doesnot seem interested in overloading patrons with their portion sizing. Instead,customers receive three hearty slices of the rolled pasta that condenseeverything good about the dish: crispy, charred crusts of pasta, melted cheese,and a bright tomato sauce enriched by layers of meat and veg. This dish ranks,along with the vodka rigatoni, as the best of the restaurant’s pastas and amongits best overall.
Ciccio Mio’s entrées are divided into two categories: “di mare”and “secondi.” The former category features two fish preparations—askewered swordfish with vegetables and a seared king salmon in a brown butterand lemon sauce—which you have yet to try. Both dishes do contain their shareof classic Italian-American ingredients (pickled peppers, baby artichoke,escarole, oregano), but you simply never ordered such preparations when diningat this sort of restaurant as a child. That being said, Bavette’s has certainlyimpressed you with its simply-cooked fish dishes. You have no reason to doubtthe swordfish and salmon are tasty, but they seem—in this case—to be more of aconcession for those diners who do not eat meat.
On the other hand, the shrimp scampi listed under the “di mare”sectionmust seem familiar to just about every dinner. Scampi, youthink, could very well be the most famous Italian seafood preparation of all.Here, the shrimp are served head-on with a slit running down one side of theshell. This allows the kitchen to stuff each of them with a mixture of fennelpollen, Calabrian chili, and other herbs. You add a squeeze of the accompanyinglemon then head straight for the head, slurping down the wonderful soup of itsinnards, before peeling the well-seasoned flesh from its shell. It is plump,juicy, and wants for no sauce or manner of flavoring. At $33, the dish isCiccio Mio’s second most-expensive, and it’s a steep price to pay for whatamounts to four large prawns’ worth of meat. However, like all of Hogsalt’sseafood, the quality does not disappoint. Given how reverently these shrimp areprepared, perhaps this dish can be considered somewhat of a substitute forhaving lobster on the menu. Surely, you cannot be the only one who finds thevast majority of cooked lobster in this city—nay, this country—woefully subpar.
The second category of entrées, “secondi” features two bonafideclassic chicken dishes alongside two more contemporary preparation of beef.First, the legendary chicken parmesan. Here, the breast is pounded somewherebetween “thin” and “medium” thickness, covered in layers of flour, egg, andItalian breadcrumbs, and then fried until the outer crust is a mix of brown,dark brown, and black. If the restaurant stopped here and simply served theseperfectly crispy cutlets, you would be a happy man. However, they up the ante,covering about two-thirds of the chicken with tomato sauce, adding a fewpuddles of mozzarella, and finishing the plate with a shaving of parm.While some may cry sacrilege, you think this preparation works quite wellbecause—rather than cover the entirety of the chicken in a gooey mass of cheeseand sauce—the contrast between the crust of the chicken and its juicy flesh ispreserved. The powerfully-flavored tomato sauce can be added as one likes (ascan the mozzarella, though you think just a bit more of it would beappropriate). Thus, the diner sort of receives two dishes in one: a crispy Milaneseand a saucy parm. Ciccio Mio, meanwhile, gets to celebrate the quality ofits chicken in a way that is usually obscured by the heaviness of itsaccompanying ingredients. At $20 for a cutlet that nearly fills the wholeplate, this dish is a must order.
Next, another preparation of poultry: the almost-as-famous chicken marsala.Though, typically, the chicken would also be pounded and pan-fried (though notbreaded), this preparation approaches the bird much as you would a roast chicken.Diners receive two glistening pieces: the drumstick and the breast (with wing attached).They are served skin-on and topped with a mixture of mushrooms and shallotscooked down in Marsala wine (which, ultimately, serves as a sauce at the bottomof the plate). Like the parm preparation that came before it, CiccioMio’s marsala makes sure that the chicken itself is the star of theplate. The crispness of the skin is again preserved, as is the succulence ofthe flesh. The topping of mushrooms is pleasurably chunky and infused with theflavor of the wine and herbs, which—as a gravy—also works to ensure theentirety of the breast smacks of that Marsala flavor. Again, this dish stands asa rather savvy update of an Italian-American classic, probing why the preparationis so bethrown to a “pounded” chicken texture when it’s the sauce that customersare after.
The first of the restaurant’s two beef entrées is, like the king crabbucatini, a later addition that was made to the menu. It consists of a braisedbeef cheek served on top of soft polenta with “glazed” vegetables and a redwine demi glace. As much as you have tried to find one, this dish simply has noconnection to Italian-American cuisine. It’s an unabashed, “authentic” recipeas one would find served in Piedmont, and there—perhaps—we find the clue. Giventhe quality of Barolo displayed on Ciccio Mio’s wine list, the need arrives forthe sort of food that can accentuate a $200, $300, or $400 bottle of wine. Theblack truffle bucatini comes close in some respects, but the dish’s simplicityallows for any number of appropriate pairings. Braised beef cheek, on the otherhand, belongs to a category of “rustic” cooking that those who make such winesindulge in. The fall-apart tenderness of the meat—relative to an actual cut ofsteak—does not demand a big, tannic wine. Rather, one can marvel in themedium-bodied, tart cherry delight of a Nebbiolo-based wine. The crunch of theslightly-sweet carrots and onions, the smoothness of the polenta, and thetallow-tinged demi glace that adorns it all are tailormade for imbibing. It’s agreat dish—done quite literally as your mother would make. Thus, you canforgive the restaurant for going a bit off theme. Who says a new dish cannot beadded to the canon? Particularly if it serves as a vehicle to better appreciatethe best wines of Italy.
The last of the entrées listed on the menu is also its most expensive.At $50, the coal fired ribeye (no weight given) lands just shy of the $60, 16oz. “Chicago cut” classic ribeye served next door at Bavette’s. Could it be thesame piece of meat? Perhaps, as to your eye it seems to be the same amount ofmeat (or just shy). Gilt Bar, it must be said, also serves a “double cutcoal-fired” ribeye at $2.50 per ounce, but you think Ciccio Mio’s is probablycloser to 16 oz. than 20. You are not sure if Bavette’s cooks their steaks overcoal as well (given the coal-fired moniker is only dropped for that menu), butthe quality of the preparation comes very close to the high standard Hogsalt’scrown jewel sets. At Ciccio Mio, the steak arrives sliced with a bulb ofroasted garlic beside it and some crispy bits of fried rosemary. Compared tothat beef cheek, the ribeye offers a bit more “chew” but still possesses plentyof beef flavor and a wonderfully charred exterior (which, you think, is one ofthe hallmarks of an Italian-American steak preparation). Try it with a morestructured wine like Chianti or one of those Super Tuscan blends (but, you mustsay, a Barolo would still make a fine showing given the precision of thepreparation).
Adorning the bottom of the restaurant’s menu are a set of four dishes“to share” at $13 each. Yes, there’s soft polenta made in the same style asthat served with the beef cheek dish, but the other three are more unique. Likebitter rapini (also known as broccoli rabe) served with lemon and chili. CiccioMio is kind to label the dish “bitter,” as certain novice palates may struggleto find pleasure from its flavor. However, you think there exists a no moreclassic Italian-American vegetable preparation than rapini. The hearty crunchof the rapini’s stems, the stewed (almost collared greens style) juiciness ofits leaves, and the bit of citrus and spice to cut that bitter flavor form abrilliant balance. You think it would pair rather nicely with the chicken marsalaor the steak.
So, too, would the Vesuvio potatoes: thick, crispy wedges of tuberreplete with chicken jus, confit garlic, and oregano. This style of potato preparationis indigenous to the famous “chicken Vesuvio” (a dish said to have beenpopularized by Chicago’s Vesuvio Restaurant in the 1930s), but it can often befound accompanying just about any chicken preparation at an Italian-Americanrestaurant. Ciccio Mio’s rendition is cleaner, with potatoes that are allproperly cooked through and crispy but still smack from that enchantinggarlic-and-oregano combo. The last of the side dishes is a roasted acorn squashthat arrives in two large, skin-on halves. While the accompanying chestnuthoney and brown butter work well to draw out the squash’s sweetness, you thinkthe skin-on presentation leaves something to be desired. Texturally, the innerflesh is quite soft (almost to the level of the polenta) while the skin is just“there.” You would rather see another sort of squash used where the skin iscompletely removed and the flesh itself is given a bit of char (to contrastwith the softer texture). The flavors, otherwise, are nice enough, but you seelittle connection to Italian-American cuisine on this plate either.
When it comes to “dolce” (or dessert), Ciccio Mio’s menu hasonly one problem. With only four dishes on offer, why make one of them aFerrero Rocher? Why charge $1 for a wrapped hazelnut chocolate (that costssomething like 35¢ when bought as a full box) rather than task the pastry chefwith forming their own creation? Yes, the chocolates are produced in Piedmont.Yes, the process has been kept secret since they first came to market in 1982.But that is well after the waves of Italian immigrants reached this country,and you sure as hell have never seen Ferrero Rocher served at any classic redsauce joint. Is there any customer whose pulse quickens when they see they canorder the same treat available at any convenience store? If that’s the game,then the restaurant might as well put Woodbridge and Yellowtail on the wine listtoo. Perhaps the items placement on the menu is more playful than you areinterpreting it to be. Perhaps, but you are quite sure customers would preferseeing a cheesecake, a profiterole, or any number of Italian-American pastries,cookies, and cakes in its place on the dessert menu.
Nonetheless, the remaining three desserts tell a different story. For$10, there’s the gelato, a towering, tulip-shaped sundae dish with a proud peakof fior di latte softserve. The flavor, which may be unfamiliar to some,is best described as pure, fresh, sweet milk without any influence of vanilla. Itssubtlety allows the toppings of olive oil, chestnut honey, sea salt, and fennelpollen to really shine, the end result being a super smooth, nicely sweetgelato that grows ever more pleasing as the flakes of salt and pollen coat thetongue. The accompanying shortbread cookies are just dry and crumbly enough tosend your spoon running back for more in what might just be the best of CiccioMio’s desserts. The pavlova, at $12, offers more ice cream: here, an unnamedflavor (you think it vanilla) covered with a cascade of whipped cream andfenced in by a few crisp lengths of meringue. The accompanying fresh berries(made, essentially, into a compote) provides the bulk of the flavor. In thattask, you think they come up a bit short, and that a healthier drizzle over thetop of the dessert would make for a more enjoyable dish. The cannoli, whichround out the sweets, are rather well done. The shell is crunchy without beingbrittle. The filling is sweet (but still tangy) and benefits from a healthy capof pistachios on either end. A white chocolate and orange blossom dipping saucebrings a slightly bitter note to the table, refining and further accentuatingthose classic flavors effortlessly. Bravo!
So, is Ciccio Mio the best Italian restaurant in Chicago? That it’s the best Italian-American restaurant in the city you think you can unabashedly say. But could you choose one between Spiaggia and Ciccio Mio? Perhaps not, owing to the former’s decades of national influence in shaping contemporary Italian cuisine in America. But where do you feel at home? Where do you feel taken care of—not with pomp and circumstance—but in a tacit, eternal, and timeless way? You think it’s actually Monteverde that suffers the most from Hogsalt’s newest opening, owing to the fact that Chef Grueneberg’s restaurant—however excellent—has one foot in the “old” Italian-American tradition, one foot in the Spiaggia-style “contemporary” tradition, and another foot (a hand, perhaps) in a forward-looking “Italy-meets-the-rest-of-the-world” style. Seeing her juggle so many expressions of the cuisine is certainly part of the charm, and she does it well. In doing so, however, she reduces the Italian-American cuisine of yore down to just one dish: the wonderful ragù alla Napoletana. In contrast, Ciccio Mio embraces the totality of Italian-American restaurant history. It renovates the setting, the service, and the whole pantheon of preparations that distinguish the diaspora cuisine. It does not freeze them in time, mind you, but the restaurant knows what’s eternal, what’s essential, and what can be used as a jumping off point in the creation of novel Italian-American dishes. It amounts, you think, to reviving a cuisine that was nearly on life support. For you, personally, it means the celebration of a nostalgia you do deeply hold. Of food that need not look to far-flung locations to impress, but rather understands why people enjoyed the comfort these restaurants provided in the past. And still, there is so much more Ciccio Mio can do. With reservations growing ever-harder to obtain, the stage is set for an Italian-American renaissance in Chicago.