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Chicago's Love Affair With Italy Continues to Grow

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Eater contributor Catherine De Orio is the host of Check, Please!, writer, entrepreneur, and TV and radio personality. Follow her culinary adventures on Twitter @CatCalls and Instagram @catdeorio

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[Photos: Marc Much]

The recession brought about myriad things that left a bad taste in our mouths, but it's also lead to some delicious side effects—namely an onslaught of Italian restaurant openings. Comfort is what we were craving and chefs bid adieu to the fancy and frou-frou, ushering in a flood of eateries serving this familiar fare. And Chicagoans have been ravenously eating it up, quite literally. Eataly's first week here is proof positive that this trend shows no signs of slowing.

So, with nearly a dozen Italian concepts having opened in the past six months, here's how to navigate the newest options so no matter what the occasion, you will always mangia bene!

Eataly's highly-focused dining areas sprinkled throughout the Italian culinary super store—carne (meat), verdure (vegetables), pesce (fish)—don't offer all the accoutrements of a regular restaurant meal. For post-prandial coffee or dessert one must head to the café, nutella or gelato bar on the first level. This no-nonsense approach to dining lends itself to business lunches or serves as a brilliant first date spot for the cynics among us—quick escape from a bad date, but a multitude of options should you want to linger longer.

Baffo: Located in Eataly, this 65-seat, fine dining restaurant is set off from the market and has its own entrance. Its debut has foodies and celebrity chef name droppers (this is Mario Batali's first Chicago outpost) flocking—and for good reason. Batali's refined rustic dishes populate the drool-inducing menu. Whether you are a traditionalist (dry-aged porcini rubbed ribeye), appreciate fresh takes (charred octopus with spicy limoncello vinaigrette) or an adventurous eater (warm lamb's tongue, pig's foot Milanese), there is something to please everyone on the menu.

Head to Tre Soldi when searching for a well-priced, casual weeknight meal. Located in the heart of Streeterville, Tre Soldi is to Roman fare what Coco Pazzo is to Tuscan—think spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all'amatriciana and cacio e pepe as well as crispy, thin-crusted Roman-style pizza, veal saltimbocca and twice-fried artichokes with a wine list with about 20 by the glass offerings. With all these options, you can do as the Romans do and indulge.

Neighborhood gem Azzurra EnoTavola takes a general approach to the food of the peninsula and serves up regionally-inspired dishes from every inch of the boot. The traditional Southern combination of orecchiette, Italian sausage, rapini, garlic and pecorino is offered next to a Northern dish of gnocchi with slow-cooked mushrooms and parmigiano. But brunch is where it's at—think eggs amatriciana—guanciale, tomato, poached eggs with crispy polenta fries or the sweet and savory polenta griddle cakes topped with seasonal preserves, whipped mascarpone and bacon and a hangover helper to boot (the bartender will send you over amaro to cure what ails you). And besides, who doesn't want to start the day with a little Italian?

Leave it to One Off Hospitality (Avec, Blackbird, Big Star, Publican, PQM) to create Nico Osteria, the hippest Italian in town and in one of the most tourist-heavy areas no less. Located in the swanky new Thompson Hotel, this is the place to see, be seen and get some damn good food. Fantastic fish options (they bypass local distributors to bring in unique offerings) some of which can be ordered by the pound, original homemade pasta dishes (black bucatini with sardines, chile and mint) and a selection of fettunta (a version of bruschetta) round out the menu. But despite its cool quotient and location in the heart of the Gold Coast scene, it appears to accomplish the impossible—it has created a place where hipsters, celebrities and the scenesters who love them can eat together in blissful harmony.

The weather this season has made us its bitch, but J. Rocco Italian Table & Bar will comfort even the most beat down amongst us. All the usual suspects make an appearance on chef Steve Chiappetti's menu. Offerings of heaping bowls of homemade pastas and a selection of six different types of meatballs sit comfortably next to cioppino and lamb osso buco making this the place to head to banish the winter blues and satisfy all your Italian comfort food cravings. So go ahead—wrap yourself in the comfort of carbs.

Sofi brings a welcome dining option to the South loop. Chef Maurizio Michi brought many of the upscale Northern dishes from the menu at his brother's restaurant, Riccardo Trattoria, to his new venture. With nearly 40 menu options to choose (excluding the pasta dishes and antipasti), many of which are rich, yet refined. This is the place to go when you don't know what you want to eat, but you know you want options.

Tucked away in the corner of a strip mall on Harlem Avenue, Forno Rosso Pizzeria Napoletana is on the lips (literally and figuratively) of the Italian culinary cognoscenti. Traveling to Sorrento Italy to learn the trade, Nick Nitti, owner and pizzaiolo, turns out perfect pies from the namesake wood-burning red oven. Start with his nonna's caponata, try the Barese pizza topped with sausage, rapini and burratta and finish with a homemade cannoli or tiramisu. Show your food cred by getting here before the masses do.

Much larger than the traditional Venetian bacaros/bars that inspired the restaurant, Cicchetti's dark wood interior and low lighting manages to replicate their cozy atmosphere. Located near Michigan Avenue, it is a fantastic option for the after-work set (make like a true Venetian and order the sprtiz), business dinners and as a pre-Looking Glass theatre dinner (or post since the bar menu is available until 1 am). Chef Michael Sheerin's house-cured sardines, salt cod croquettes and other traditional small bites give a nod to Venice, but his creative cooking chops really shine in the homemade pastas—scrambled egg agnolotti with guanciale and freshly shaved white truffles or squid ink orecchiette with lamb sopressata—on offer.

Davanti Enoteca, a River North outpost at 30 E. Hubbard of the Taylor Street favorite, dishes out the same straightforward Italian small plates including the vasi, pizzas and polenta of the day. The varied menu options and large dining area (it's more than three times the size of the Taylor Street location) make it a great option for group dining.

If you have always wanted to feel like a 'goodfella,' check out Centro Ristorante. The second coming of the original mid-nineties hot spot has brought back the original chef Joe Farina, all the Italian-American classics and much of its sharply dressed clientele. The convivial atmosphere and table-hopping may give the impression you've walked into a private party—but here, everyone is a regular and if you aren't you will never know it.
· All Tasting Trends [-ECHI-]

Nico Osteria

1015 North Rush Street, , IL 60611 (312) 994-7100 Visit Website

Tre Soldi

212 E Ohio Street, Chicago, IL (312) 664-0212 Visit Website

Cicchetti

100 North Tryon Street, , NC 28202 (980) 299-0039 Visit Website

Davanti Enoteca

1359 West Taylor Street, , IL 60607 (312) 226-5550 Visit Website

Baffo

44 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 312.521.8701 Visit Website

Eataly Chicago

43 East Ohio Street, , IL 60611 (312) 521-8700 Visit Website

Centro Ristorante

6 W Hubbard St, Chicago, IL 60654 312-988-7775

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