Ciccio Mio is not simply “a” nostalgic restaurant. It’s the nostalgic restaurant, the Italian-American amphitheater of Frank, Dean, and Tony. Ciccio Mio is the red sauce joint of your dreams, the greatest common divisor of every good thing that every Italian-American restaurant has done in the century (or so) since the diaspora wove the trodden souls of Naples, Palermo, and Genoa into the fabric of domestic life. Does that mean Ciccio Mio is the best Italian restaurant in Chicago? Why, yes, it does. Tied for “best,” at least, depending on just what one considers “Italian” and whether diaspora culture the whole country over is destined for preservation or renovation. “Authenticity,” you guess, is the name of the game, and Hogsalt’s newest restaurant brings one of modern 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 sushi experiences in the city, Radio Anago seemed like Hogsalt’s answer to Sushi-San or Momotaro. Invariably described in the press as “dimly lit,” the venue seemed a lounge space as much as it was a restaurant. Yes, there were a half dozen maki rolls, a dozen different bites of nigiri, and a much-maligned fried chicken covered in edible gold. There were also saketinis, sake bombs, cocktail shots, and “party shots” in four colors: fuscia, cyan, buttercream, and slime green. Looking at the menu now, Radio Anago actually seems like a pleasant place 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 Japanese experience. That is all to say, Radio Anago might have done well in this post-Gaijin era, yet what the city received in its place is much more consequential.
Reportedly, Sodikoff had originally sought a quick turnaround for the defunct restaurant space. It was to remain Japanese yet open as a new concept with more hot dishes that went beyond the fried chicken and sushi offerings. Could there have been savory pancakes? Who knows, as somewhere along the way the Japanese concept was ditched altogether in favor of something strangely underrepresented in Chicago at the moment: Italian-American cuisine. Yes, Spiaggia is still sublime. Monteverde is its magnificent, more casual cugino, but both restaurants are clearly inspired by the way Italians eat in Italy (rather than descendant of diaspora cuisine). That Italian-American immigrant cuisine can 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 in America a bounty they had never before seen. Suddenly, there existed meat–and plenty 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’re sure that patrons could always find something to whet their whistle during Prohibition too.
Sometime from then until now, a craving for “real” Italian food took root. 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 average American 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 the average American’s waistband has expanded many decades after the diaspora. The heaping portions that kept the Italian-American pavers, bricklayers, butchers, and bakers going as they carved out a place in this country are no longer necessary. Their target audience has worked their way off of Taylor Street and into the suburbs, and the next immigrant group–with its own comfort food–has taken root.
Today, the vast majority of those opening Italian restaurants–be they Italian-American or not–do not look backwards in American history for inspiration, but, rather, they are inspired by la dolce vita of contemporary Italy. Yes, they are inspired by tradition. Hundreds of years of tradition. But they do not pass those techniques through the sieve of poverty, alienation, and unfamiliarity that characterized the Italian-American experience and yielded, when the dust finally settled, a distinct diaspora cuisine for which many people are nostalgic. Thus, one is left with new, gleaming temples to Italian cuisine that deny any relation to those of an Italian-American persuasion. At the same time, the surviving restaurants serving the diaspora cuisine grow decrepit, let their standards slide, and–suddenly–disappear altogether.
Of course, Chicago has had its share of Italian restaurants open over the past decade. While some have certainly embraced a casual, more comfortable style, their menus unanimously symbolize the extrication of “Italian” cuisine from its hyphenated, diaspora roots. RPM Italian, for example, mingles Italian-American classics like garlic bread, lobster fra diavolo, and chicken parm with imported burrata, Roman-style artichokes, and a titanic Bistecca Fiorentina. Gibsons Italia, which features veal parm and spaghetti on its menu, also does not shy away from touting A5 Miyazaki beef or “Italian heritage organic stone ground flour” for its pastas. Formento’s, you might think, may fit 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 any Italian-American could likely pronounce. Even Siena Tavern and Bar Siena–both from an Italian chef who has shown he understands the American palate–are perfectly fine serving brick chicken diavolo but sacrifice the remainder of the diaspora canon in favor of dishes that are either more American or more Italian. Even Mama’s Boy–the River North “peasant Italian” restaurant opened by Rosebud–indulged in high cuisine dishes like risotto mixed in a wheel of parmigiano. Despite consciously trying to update the diaspora cuisine, the primely-located spot closed after just two and a half years.
Truth be told, the mix of influences seen on these menus represents the evolution of Italian-American cuisine. For, it is not as though Italian immigrants did not wish to cook as they did in their homeland. The diaspora cuisine, as previously mentioned, was shaped by the conditions these immigrants found upon their arrival in the United States. As those conditions were alleviated, it makes sense that the “Italian style” of cookery could be better enacted both through the easier attainment of imported products and a better familiarity with fresh, indigenous ingredients that could be adapted to classic recipes. In many ways, then, the Italian-American cuisine of which you speak is more like a collection of dishes than a clear style of cooking. Does that mean these dishes cannot be improved upon? No, as Ciccio Mio will show. Italian-American cuisine demands a backwards style of cooking–one that prizes excess, comfort, and a meager pantry of “authentic” ingredients like garlic, oil, cheese, and canned tomatoes. From within those confines, great things can still emerge. Carbone has proved that in New York City, and Ciccio Mio surely aims to do the same in Chicago.
You have visited Ciccio Mio five or six times now since its opening last October with consistent notes, so–as usual–this review will be a composite of those experiences. With that settled, let us begin. Walking through Ciccio Mio’s front door, it must be said, is a little different than going to Bavette’s next door. Both restaurants boast their own branded awnings (so there’s no chance of mixing them up), but they build a sense of ambiance in different ways. Bavette’s congregates customers in a small, sparsely adorned vestibule where reservations can be checked and coats collected before entrance into the restaurant proper. Though patrons can slip past the hosts and hostesses to try their 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 extra layer of security, a front-of-house roadblock that functions to control the flow of walk-ins relative to the limited lounge space and extended meals that occur at many of the tables. The real test, of course, comes from judging just how politely would-be guests are informed of the long wait they will face for a table. Yet, suffice it to say, plenty of patrons are deterred at the door, leaving the essence of the restaurant space obscured and, perhaps, saving the surprise for that lucky occasion they will be able to dine at the restaurant.
Entering Ciccio Mio, on the otherhand, is like stepping into a sepia-toned movie set. So much so, you really wonder if Hogsalt didn’t time Radio Anago’s re-concepting with the release of The Irishman. It is no secret that the restaurant group possesses an incomparable ability to make “new” spaces look and feel “old,” and the work at this location is their best yet. 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 bar that also serves–at on end–as the host’s stand. The wood of the bar–the same wood that panels the walls and forms the shelving–shines back against the warm glow of candles, cut crystal lamps, and chandeliers. It’s dark, after all, a smoke-filled room of the highest order, an antique space that any tourist would think was one of the city’s historic restaurants
As soon as one comes face-to-face with that espresso machine, the host or hostess pounces. They take name, coat, hat, and bags and–after placing a numbered tag into your hand–whisk you through a curtained portal into the restaurant proper. You are not sure how Ciccio Mio handles walk-ins (though, at the time you are writing this, the restaurant remains one of the very toughest reservations in the city). On the far wall from the front bar, the room features a reclining couch, a lone armchair, and a coffee table all on an area rug 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 bar stools which look out–through thickly-curtained windows and, yes, more amari–at Kinzie Street. All in all (and, especially, relative to Bavette’s), Ciccio Mio’s front room functions brilliantly as a parlor. Its design is a natural complement to the dining room’s, and the small seating area is a picturesque place to serve cocktails to guests whose tables are running behind. Does Ciccio Mio accept walk-ins at all? You would guess not, for this lounge area would grow much too crowded if it were used as waiting room. Instead, it acts as a pitch-perfect first impression, a chance to get in the mood before moving into the meal itself.
Once the curtain is drawn and one steps through the threshold into the dining room proper, Ciccio Mio’s uncanny resemblance to a mob movie set becomes even more clear. To begin, there’s not a bad seat in the house. Both walls are entirely lined with banquettes, allowing for four tables of four and two horseshoe booths for up to six guests per side. There are also two tables for two 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 must be something like “wow, this isn’t Bavette’s.” Correct, Ciccio Mio is much more intimate, much more focused in its service and some of the bells and whistles a higher staff-to-customer ratio allows for.
Of course, the décor in the dining room helps. The booths are finished in red velvet and basked in the gentle light of crystal sconces. There are additional crystal chandeliers and more wood paneling–with every inch of wall space behind the booths being covered in ornate picture frames of various sizes and shapes. The images they contain are nondescript enough–landscapes, engravings, and anonymous begowned beauties–but they work in concert to lend the space a sense of history. At the back of the room, a standing-only bar crafts amaro cocktails for the room with a solitary table (with that telltale red-checkered tablecloth) positioned front and center of it. It is the restaurant’s most explicit visual nod to the Italian-American tradition they have so earnestly rejuvenated, and you’d be lying if you said there wasn’t a special romance to that relatively unglamorous spot.
If you told someone there was a Japanese restaurant here mere months ago, they would think you are joking. Ciccio Mio’s sense of timelessness is really that strong. Mind you, the restaurant never descends into parody. Materials like velvet and wood, like candlelight and the bric-a-brac that lines the walls are not distinctly Italian. Rather, they represent an older era of luxury that corresponded to the heyday of the Italian-American restaurant as the absolute height of hospitality in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Think of the classic speakeasy or the private supper club–secretive establishments that were often run by Italian immigrants with little overt reference to their homeland. First and foremost, Ciccio Mio–like Bavette’s or any Hogsalt property–evokes the very best of early twentieth century Chicago. From that starting point, the group injects a bit of hospitality spirit: be it French brasserie, Cajun, American diner, or Italian-American. Because of this, Ciccio Mio seems like a classic Chicago restaurant run and maintained by Italian-Americans rather than a too-conscious, heavy-handed reconstruction. Of course, in reality, it is a loving reconstruction–albeit, one that never tries too hard and evaporates the essential charm it aims for.
Once you get seated, the real fun begins. As you might have mentioned in your review of Bavette’s, the servers there operate with a certain flair for the 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 the waiters, of course. It’s not a Gibsons restaurant. Yet this “style” of service is 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 to the type you just described–are unafraid to unleash a bit of banter and create the same effect at the table. That is, one of good fun, warmth, and–over time–genuine regards and appreciation.
You have been graced with the same male server for the past three or four visits and find his style of service offers a bit of a twist on the Bavette’s style (or, mind you, on that seen at Carbone, which you think is even more boisterous and broad-shouldered). This server looks, moves, and talks like Jeff Mauro (the Chicago-born Food Network personality), which is to say he represents a softer, smoother Italian-American style without any hint of irritability and only the slightest bit of gesticulation. In this manner, Ciccio Mio avoids being labeled a “theme restaurant” where the theatricality of the service staff is overdone. Rather than making the diner feel they are being served by an “Italian” (or, even worse, an Italian “gangster”), the front of house staff accentuates the warmth, humility, and leisurely luxury of the dining experience. Thus, the service strikes one as familiar (embracing the feeling rather than the reality of classic Italian-American hospitality) without demanding the staff descend into parody. They need simply provide excellent service 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’s staff-to-customer ratio ensures this is easily accomplished. Bavette’s has always impressed you with the sincerity of its service given the scale of its operation. At Ciccio Mio, the stage is much smaller and the spotlight much bigger, 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 the server, you finally have a chance to turn to the menu. To drink, Ciccio Mio offers a selection of classic cocktails with some Italian-inspired twists–like a 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 to row after row of amaro bottles lining the shelves of the restaurant’s front room, the herbal liqueurs are also featured prominently among the drinks. Five lighter 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 options listed 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 get it, as a certain amount of dilution is essential to cut some of the bitterness for all but the most experienced amaro buffs.
Turning the menu over, you come face-to-face with a rather expansive list of wines by the glass. All the bases are covered, from several styles of sparkling (prosecco, Franciacorta, Moscato d’Asti) wines, familiar (sauvignon blanc, chardonnay) and unfamiliar (fiano d’avellino) white wines, a rosé (made from barbera), and ten types of red wine from obscure (pinot nero, cannonau) to coveted (Chianti, merlot/cabernet “Super Tuscan” blend, Barbaresco). To Ciccio Mio’s great credit, each of these wines is given a description of no more than three words. For example, the Alto Adige sauvignon blanc is labeled as “cool, herbal, concentrated” and the Barbaresco as “refined, leathery, autumnal.” The best descriptions draw on metaphor, as in the cannonau being described as the “châteauneuf of Sardinia.” You have seen these descriptors work to great effect on Galit’s wine list, and they also work here to demystify the indigenous grapes that offer customers better value and drinking experiences than the best-known Italian 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 offer bottles–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 competitive prices. The list may only be a fraction of that offered at Spiaggia, but you would likely pay close to double the price for some of the nicer red wines offered at Ciccio Mio. That being said, there simply aren’t any bottles of white wine that cost more than $100, and one certainly does not need to spend to drink well here. Personally, you were quite happy drinking Giacomo Conterno’s 2015 Barbera d’Alba at around $160 per bottle until you polished off the last of it. Nonetheless, customers cannot go wrong choosing from such a generous wine list, and you think that Hogsalt, as a group, excels particularly well in this category. A selection of five Italian beers (many you have never heard of), one Michigan cider, and six spirit-free options round off the beverage options.
Moving on to the food, Ciccio Mio’s menu offers some 25 items spread across six categories (excluding dessert). While these dishes have generally stayed the same since the restaurant’s opening, you have seen one special make its way onto the main menu, another special replace it, and one new entrée appear altogether. Surely, eating here is not so complicated as choosing between those ten types of chicken preparation. The menu is incredibly focused–like Bavette’s, which really has not deviated from its classics in all this time–but leaves room for new creations. Personally, you would like to see veal and pork entrees on the menu. Baked clams, too, which are presented as a wonderfully refined 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 due course. Right now, there is plenty of work to be done simply convincing a contemporary audience that these “heavy” Italian-American dishes can be streamlined and made desirable yet again. All the focus right now is on execution–and it shows.
Starting with the antipasti section, you would heartily recommend the whole roasted artichoke with parmesan-herb stuffing. While the heart of the artichoke is a toothsome delight, diners eating the outer leaves will need to scrape the “meat” of the vegetable off using their teeth. This yields only a slight amount of artichoke, but the stuffing and accompanying tonnato sauce (made from mayonnaise, olive oil preserved tuna, and lemon juice) ensures a pleasurable bite of food. The “premium burrata,” too, is well worth ordering but should be carefully timed with the bread’s arrival. You see, some time after the drink order is taken (but before the food), the server may offer Ciccio Mio’s bread service, a mouthwatering tray of warm, incredibly crispy focaccia meets ciabatta-style bread served with small bowls of housemade giardiniera and olive oil. Balsamic vinegar and grated parmigiano are offered tableside for the oil, along with a few slices of housemade salami fresh from the old-school slicer that sits atop the serving station. It’s just the sort of easy hospitality–the earnest sharing of veritable culinary treasures–that makes your heart flutter. But do not eat it all too quickly! For if you happen to order that creamy, milky, magnificent burrata and then finish your bread, it will take a short while to put together another platter. And it goes without saying that it’s rather hard to look at the cheese–let alone enjoy it–without a crust close 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 an impressive 700 days), but–judging by the quality of the burrata–you have confidence in Hogsalt’s ability to source exceptional Italian ingredients and serve them without screwing up. Good arancini, on the other hand, requires a bit more technique. Cheese-filled, bread crumb-coated, and then fried, the rice balls are a mainstay on both Italian and Italian-American menus to this day. (Funnily enough, it forms one of the few undisturbed links between the two cuisines). Ciccio Mio’s rendition relies on a classic mozzarella filling but flavors its rice with a bit of saffron for added complexity. Texturally, the outer coating of breading is slightly crisp so as not to interfere with the softness of the rice and even softer strands of gooey cheese. Each contrasts the other, and the Calabrian chili aioli served alongside the dish does a nice job adding a hint of spice as well as a temperature contrast. Rounding out the antipasti section are Ciccio Mio’s meatballs, a blend of beef, pork, and veal (as it should be) served in a cute little pot with enough tomato sauce left over to adorn whatever bread remains after the burrata. The balls themselves–you count four or five to an order–are smaller than most in the city, yet they possess a cleanness of texture and intensity of flavor that stand as a true refinement of the meatball form. Could they be the very best in Chicago? Well, they beat Monteverde’s, and they beat the renditions at any of the historic Italian-American restaurants in town (which can be filler-laden monstrosities). Ciccio Mio nails the quintessence of the meatball both in flavor and presentation. You would like to be introduced to any better set in this city.
The “hot soup & house salad” section that follows the antipasti only contains two items–wedding soup (a lighter variant of minestrone that substitutes pasta for mini meatballs) and a house salad (salami, olives, cheese, and lettuce in a red wine vinaigrette). You have yet to try either of these classics during any of your visits simply because their familiar flavors–no matter how comforting–get in the way of enjoying a larger selection of pasta. Given the majesty shown throughout the rest of Ciccio Mio’s menu, you would be shocked if they erred on these comparably simply dishes. Plus, the one special that the restaurant has reliably offered during your dinners has invariably landed in this category. It is described as an “Italian seafood salad,” that is, a cooked-then-chilled selection of shrimp, squid, king crab, mussels, and whitefish in a light lemon vinaigrette. To you, the seafood salad has always seemed the most dangerous dish on any Italian-American restaurant’s menu. It presents a more direct test of the kitchen’s ingredient quality than the vast majority of dishes than come breaded or buried in sauce. At Ciccio Mio, the different pieces of seafood each sing with plump, giving textures and an undercurrent of sweetness accentuated by the citrus. It’s a nice medium-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 the quality of the product stay consistent (which, judging by Bavette’s stalwart seafood towers, will not be a problem at all).
The primi section of the restaurant’s menu, truth be told, is really what most guests are waiting for. Six different shapes of pasta are paired with the same number of sauces (and a selection of other ingredients) to create distinct creations which capture the glory of the old-school red sauce joints. First, there is the orecchiette pugliese–the signature dish of the Puglia region. Ear-shaped pasta is prepared al dente in the cooking water 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 a lightly dressed, highly textural dish that–nonetheless–delights the palate with its spice, bitterness, and underlying umami. The orecchiette might be the most “Italian” of the pastas on Ciccio Mio’s menu, but it stands as a testament to what the cuisine can accomplish (either in the “old” country or new) without the use of tomatoes.
Listed second out of six: the black truffle bucatini. Now, you know that Gilt Bar–the other Hogsalt property next door–has offered its own version of 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 of fresh Périgord truffle, but what did appear impressed you. From first sight, you could tell the quality of the noodles, which were spooled together with enough thickness–enough heft–to form a self-structured nest in the middle of the bowl. There, they would be topped with a hearty shaving of pecorino cheese and studded with microscopic chunks of the black truffle. “Not bad,” you think. “No truffle oil here.” And the taste of those truffles does come through–subtly, but in accordance with the price being paid. Ultimately, the sharpness of the pecorino and smooth, pleasing chew of the bucatini ensure that the dish would succeed even without that extra dose of luxury. You would love 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 to what is ultimately a very similar preparation.
Perhaps the most refined of the six pasta preparations, Ciccio Mio’s tortellini e zucca indulges in the classic combination of squash-stuffed pasta and a sage 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 the addition of mortadella (a traditional deli meat made of cured pork) and almond cookies (another classic, typically called amaretti) to the stuffing. Rather than a sauce, the tortellini comes in a shallow pool of veal stock that tastes even better upon absorbing the cheese grated on top of the dish. Though this is the only pasta on the restaurant’s menu that you haven’t tried, the combination is one of your personal favorites. Further, you think 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 approximated traditional Italian recipes using American ingredients, Ciccio Mio is retrofitting a classic tortellini e zucca with playful, “peasant food” touches like the mortadella and the almond cookies. Resourcefulness, perhaps that’s the word that distinguishes the hyphenated Italian cookery. Nonetheless, though you wish you could say so firsthand, the combination sounds like it works, with the saltiness of the cured pork and nutty/sweet notes of the cookie working 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 with truffle, but with king crab. At $28, it is comfortably the most expensive pasta on the menu (and noticeably more pricey than RPM Italian’s spicy king crab spaghetti at $19). However, it must be said that Hogsalt’s crab pasta does contain close to twice the amount of LEYE’s (and those familiar with your reviews can trust that the crab is just a little bit better quality at Hogsalt too). Instead of pecorino, the seafood preparation of bucatini arrives in a sauce of brown butter, lemon, and chive that works perfectly to bridge the thematic gap between “fine seafood” and pasta (which, barring the famous fra’ diavolo preparation rarely contains any shellfish nicer than shrimp, clams, and mussels in Italian-American cuisine). Could you pick a favorite between the black truffle and king crab bucatini? One is a play on cacio e pepe (with all the richness that comes with it), and the other a variant on linguini with clams or any simple seafood pasta that succeeds through the interplay of sweet, citric, and buttery flavors. Neither has quite enough of their luxury ingredient to really blow you away, but they’re tasty, well-balanced, and both nice vehicles for the noodles (which should always, you think, be the shining star).
Moving on, you now come to perhaps the most beloved of all Italian-American pasta preparations. No, not spaghetti and meatballs, but something more orange-tinged, something more sacrilegious. “Spicy vodka rigatoni,” as Ciccio Mio’s menu terms it, combines the thick, bent, tube-shaped pasta with a luscious sauce made from tomatoes, heavy cream, and a touch of that titular spirit to bring everything together. Surely, nobody has ever tasted 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 Alfredo can 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 a few leaves of basil, Ciccio Mio’s rigatoni wants for nothing more. The noodles are only 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. Each of the elbows–and yes, it is quite hard to bite into more than one at a time–is a gem. The creamy outer coating hits the tongue first, followed by the ridged texture that forms the shell of the rigatoni. After just a couple chews, the crux of the noodle collapses on the palate, unleashing a jetsam of vodka sauce that coats the gums and infuses those last few bites with the full breadth of the cream and tomato combination. Personally, your childhood red sauce joint always served “eight-finger” cavatelli with its vodka sauce, but you can have no complaints here. The spicy vodka rigatoni is a showstopper, a masterpiece of canonical Italian-American cooking, and something you imagine will never leave this 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 layer after layer of sheet pasta stacked vertically in a baking pan, this version is made in the “rotolo” style wherein the ingredients are placed between layers of pasta and then rolled like an untucked burrito. After congealing in the fridge, the rolled lasagna may be cut into segments and baked in the oven with all its inner sections exposed to the heat. While this “rotolo” preparation may not typically be applied to lasagna, Italians do have a proud tradition of roulade style pastas and Italian-Americans their braciole (a dish of rolled and stuffed meat). Thus, applying this technique to lasagna represents something of a mish-mash of dishes–just the sort, you think, that would be right at home as part of a diaspora cuisine. Further, Ciccio Mio’s lasagna is made in a “Bolognese” style. Rather than the usual layers of ground 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 while tasting 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 does not seem interested in overloading patrons with their portion sizing. Instead, customers receive three hearty slices of the rolled pasta that condense everything 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 among its best overall.
Ciccio Mio’s entrées are divided into two categories: “di mare” and “secondi.” The former category features two fish preparations–a skewered swordfish with vegetables and a seared king salmon in a brown butter and lemon sauce–which you have yet to try. Both dishes do contain their share of classic Italian-American ingredients (pickled peppers, baby artichoke, escarole, oregano), but you simply never ordered such preparations when dining at this sort of restaurant as a child. That being said, Bavette’s has certainly impressed you with its simply-cooked fish dishes. You have no reason to doubt the swordfish and salmon are tasty, but they seem–in this case–to be more of a concession 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, you think, 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 the shell. This allows the kitchen to stuff each of them with a mixture of fennel pollen, Calabrian chili, and other herbs. You add a squeeze of the accompanying lemon then head straight for the head, slurping down the wonderful soup of its innards, 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 is Ciccio Mio’s second most-expensive, and it’s a steep price to pay for what amounts to four large prawns’ worth of meat. However, like all of Hogsalt’s seafood, the quality does not disappoint. Given how reverently these shrimp are prepared, perhaps this dish can be considered somewhat of a substitute for having lobster on the menu. Surely, you cannot be the only one who finds the vast majority of cooked lobster in this city–nay, this country–woefully subpar.
The second category of entrées, “secondi” features two bonafide classic chicken dishes alongside two more contemporary preparation of beef. First, the legendary chicken parmesan. Here, the breast is pounded somewhere between “thin” and “medium” thickness, covered in layers of flour, egg, and Italian 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 these perfectly 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 few puddles of mozzarella, and finishing the plate with a shaving of parm. While some may cry sacrilege, you think this preparation works quite well because–rather than cover the entirety of the chicken in a gooey mass of cheese and sauce–the contrast between the crust of the chicken and its juicy flesh is preserved. The powerfully-flavored tomato sauce can be added as one likes (as can the mozzarella, though you think just a bit more of it would be appropriate). Thus, the diner sort of receives two dishes in one: a crispy Milanese and a saucy parm. Ciccio Mio, meanwhile, gets to celebrate the quality of its chicken in a way that is usually obscured by the heaviness of its accompanying ingredients. At $20 for a cutlet that nearly fills the whole plate, 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 not breaded), 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 shallots cooked down in Marsala wine (which, ultimately, serves as a sauce at the bottom of the plate). Like the parm preparation that came before it, Ciccio Mio’s marsala makes sure that the chicken itself is the star of the plate. The crispness of the skin is again preserved, as is the succulence of the flesh. The topping of mushrooms is pleasurably chunky and infused with the flavor of the wine and herbs, which–as a gravy–also works to ensure the entirety of the breast smacks of that Marsala flavor. Again, this dish stands as a rather savvy update of an Italian-American classic, probing why the preparation is so bethrown to a “pounded” chicken texture when it’s the sauce that customers are after.
The first of the restaurant’s two beef entrées is, like the king crab bucatini, a later addition that was made to the menu. It consists of a braised beef cheek served on top of soft polenta with “glazed” vegetables and a red wine demi glace. As much as you have tried to find one, this dish simply has no connection to Italian-American cuisine. It’s an unabashed, “authentic” recipe as one would find served in Piedmont, and there–perhaps–we find the clue. Given the quality of Barolo displayed on Ciccio Mio’s wine list, the need arrives for the sort of food that can accentuate a $200, $300, or $400 bottle of wine. The black truffle bucatini comes close in some respects, but the dish’s simplicity allows for any number of appropriate pairings. Braised beef cheek, on the other hand, belongs to a category of “rustic” cooking that those who make such wines indulge in. The fall-apart tenderness of the meat–relative to an actual cut of steak–does not demand a big, tannic wine. Rather, one can marvel in the medium-bodied, tart cherry delight of a Nebbiolo-based wine. The crunch of the slightly-sweet carrots and onions, the smoothness of the polenta, and the tallow-tinged demi glace that adorns it all are tailormade for imbibing. It’s a great dish–done quite literally as your mother would make. Thus, you can forgive the restaurant for going a bit off theme. Who says a new dish cannot be added to the canon? Particularly if it serves as a vehicle to better appreciate the 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, 16 oz. “Chicago cut” classic ribeye served next door at Bavette’s. Could it be the same piece of meat? Perhaps, as to your eye it seems to be the same amount of meat (or just shy). Gilt Bar, it must be said, also serves a “double cut coal-fired” ribeye at $2.50 per ounce, but you think Ciccio Mio’s is probably closer to 16 oz. than 20. You are not sure if Bavette’s cooks their steaks over coal as well (given the coal-fired moniker is only dropped for that menu), but the quality of the preparation comes very close to the high standard Hogsalt’s crown jewel sets. At Ciccio Mio, the steak arrives sliced with a bulb of roasted garlic beside it and some crispy bits of fried rosemary. Compared to that beef cheek, the ribeye offers a bit more “chew” but still possesses plenty of beef flavor and a wonderfully charred exterior (which, you think, is one of the hallmarks of an Italian-American steak preparation). Try it with a more structured wine like Chianti or one of those Super Tuscan blends (but, you must say, a Barolo would still make a fine showing given the precision of the preparation).
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 as that served with the beef cheek dish, but the other three are more unique. Like bitter rapini (also known as broccoli rabe) served with lemon and chili. Ciccio Mio is kind to label the dish “bitter,” as certain novice palates may struggle to find pleasure from its flavor. However, you think there exists a no more classic Italian-American vegetable preparation than rapini. The hearty crunch of the rapini’s stems, the stewed (almost collared greens style) juiciness of its leaves, and the bit of citrus and spice to cut that bitter flavor form a brilliant balance. You think it would pair rather nicely with the chicken marsala or the steak.
So, too, would the Vesuvio potatoes: thick, crispy wedges of tuber replete with chicken jus, confit garlic, and oregano. This style of potato preparation is indigenous to the famous “chicken Vesuvio” (a dish said to have been popularized by Chicago’s Vesuvio Restaurant in the 1930s), but it can often be found accompanying just about any chicken preparation at an Italian-American restaurant. Ciccio Mio’s rendition is cleaner, with potatoes that are all properly cooked through and crispy but still smack from that enchanting garlic-and-oregano combo. The last of the side dishes is a roasted acorn squash that arrives in two large, skin-on halves. While the accompanying chestnut honey and brown butter work well to draw out the squash’s sweetness, you think the skin-on presentation leaves something to be desired. Texturally, the inner flesh 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 is completely removed and the flesh itself is given a bit of char (to contrast with the softer texture). The flavors, otherwise, are nice enough, but you see little connection to Italian-American cuisine on this plate either.
When it comes to “dolce” (or dessert), Ciccio Mio’s menu has only one problem. With only four dishes on offer, why make one of them a Ferrero Rocher? Why charge $1 for a wrapped hazelnut chocolate (that costs something like 35¢ when bought as a full box) rather than task the pastry chef with 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 red sauce joint. Is there any customer whose pulse quickens when they see they can order 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 list too. Perhaps the items placement on the menu is more playful than you are interpreting it to be. Perhaps, but you are quite sure customers would prefer seeing 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 peak of 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. Its subtlety allows the toppings of olive oil, chestnut honey, sea salt, and fennel pollen to really shine, the end result being a super smooth, nicely sweet gelato that grows ever more pleasing as the flakes of salt and pollen coat the tongue. The accompanying shortbread cookies are just dry and crumbly enough to send your spoon running back for more in what might just be the best of Ciccio Mio’s desserts. The pavlova, at $12, offers more ice cream: here, an unnamed flavor (you think it vanilla) covered with a cascade of whipped cream and fenced in by a few crisp lengths of meringue. The accompanying fresh berries (made, essentially, into a compote) provides the bulk of the flavor. In that task, you think they come up a bit short, and that a healthier drizzle over the top of the dessert would make for a more enjoyable dish. The cannoli, which round out the sweets, are rather well done. The shell is crunchy without being brittle. The filling is sweet (but still tangy) and benefits from a healthy cap of pistachios on either end. A white chocolate and orange blossom dipping sauce brings a slightly bitter note to the table, refining and further accentuating those 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.