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Nagrant in Awe of Formento's Red Sauce; Salero Elevates Spanish; More

Plus more Italian at Acanto and BarTucci.

Marc Much

Italian cuisine is hardly unexplored territory in Chicago these days but red hot Formento's "bests all comers with its fine service and its commitment to elevated cooking," writes Michael Nagrant. Canestri with Sunday gravy is "magnificent meaty red sauce" over meatballs and links of fennel sausage, while pink quail breasts stuffed with sage and wrapped in prosciutto are "as rich as beef." Even classic chicken parm is "lithe and crispy," each "juicy bite" bursting with spicy oregano and micro-basil.

Shrimp scampi is full of "plump, sweet" lobster and rock shrimp mousseline in a "rich" garlic butter so good that Nagrant laments not having bread to soak it up with. And a starter of housemade giardiniera would help Al's Italian Beef "rule the world" if subbed on one of its sandwiches. Overall, there are many, many competitors in town but "there is no refined red sauce experience quite like this." [RedEye]

Jeff Ruby thinks Salero elevates Spanish cuisine and is giving Chicago's scene "a big push forward." An "intense" sherry-cured Spanish mackerel is balanced by grapefruit a la plancha and a "dynamic" chorizo-stuffed quail is "so good" you won't care about anything else. Jamon serrano is turned into "edible art" with the addition of Manchego, Marcona almonds, compressed pears and "bread rocks," while a "wonderful" grilled octopus "represents something entirely new" with puffed quinoa and pickled mustard seeds.

Entrees don't skip a beat either as a roasted piquillo pepper stuffed with oxtail "upstages the glorious strips" of flat iron steak it accompanies, and the "perfectly charred" Spanish sea bass with "moist, flaky interior" is a "flawless fish." Only minor missteps such as "greasy $10 churros" keep the experience from being perfect, but nonetheless Salero is "something special" and wholeheartedly recommended.

Ruby also finds a lot to like at Acanto, where the food is "accessible enough to intrigue the nonstop parade outside its door." There are "impeccable" tortellini stuffed with Taleggio, walnuts and yellowfoot mushrooms, and black peppercorn rigatoni with spiced lamb ragout and grated caciocavallo that are both "among the city's best pasta dishes." Roasted polenta layered with cotechino sausage, a quail egg and pancetta nuggets "may be 2014's boldest new use of cornmeal mush" while "satisfying" pizzas include a white pie topped with finocchiona, fontina and fennel. "Refreshingly simple" cocktails like the "belly-warming" No. 12 are worth your time as is a buttery crostata al forno dessert that "packs pure flavor into a small package." [Chicago]

BarTucci's pastas are worth a try but the rest of the menu has a "long way to go" to match them. Mike Sula finds no faults with a "simultaneously sumptuous and brightly acidic" tomato-vodka cream sauce over rigatoni or tortelli stuffed with sweet pumpkin puree in a sage-spiked butter sauce with crushed amaretto cookies.

But wander to other parts of the menu and flaws appear. A whole lobster tail mountedon "toothy, tentacular" squid ink linguine is "stringy and overcooked" while spaghetti with clams is "so underseasoned it almost [feels] intentional." Likewise, veal saltimbocca is "rubbery," brasciole is "so dry it crumble[s] at fork contact" and a "mushy risotto" is topped with "overcooked shrimp embittered by iodine." Stick with the pastas. [Reader]


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