Ever wonder why Chicago has so many Italian restaurants? Julia Zhu, the owner of Bar Roma, the upcoming casual Italian restaurant in Andersonville, said it’s because they’re recession proof. That’s the advice gleamed from her boyfriend, restaurateur Howard Davis, who’s kept Gioco Italian open in the South Loop while saying goodbye to his other spots Red Light and Opera.
Though some Chicagoans may roll their eyes at the prospect of another Italian spot, diners continue to frequent them. Davis is helping Zhu, a Shanghai native, on the project. She partnered on Oysy Sushi in The Loop before divesting a few years ago.
"Without him, what the heck is a Chinese lady doing opening an Italian restaurant?" Zhu joked.
Even though there’s no signage yet, the restaurant could open as early as Saturday at 5101 N. Clark St., and Zhu hopes they’ll go live on OpenTable on Monday. They’re waiting for their liquor license.
Bar Roma will stand out with a menu that leans heavily on meatballs. There’s a section called "The Balls" outlining five different types. Zhu’s smitten with the veal-sweetbread with a marsala cream sauce and called it their signature dish. Other meatballs include a Swedish beef and a spicy pork belly flavored with ginger for a bit of a Chinese kick. There’s also a chicken variety and a lamb meatball. Zhu and her crew took an R&D trip to New York and visited spots like The Meatball Shop. Meatball shops aren’t new in Chicago. They include Polpetti, the former Original Meatball Vault, inside Chicago’s French Market.
The menu is from chef Fred Ramos who knows Davis from his stint at Gioco. His Roman-inspired selections also include braised tripe, plenty of seafood and house-made pastas. Zhu happily has used her boyfriend's restaurant acumen throughout the process and the Chinese immigrant is excited to open an Italian restaurant. It makes sense. Many—accurately or not—still believe Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy after his stay in China.
Bar Roma’s meatballs come three to an order. Ensuring portion sizes weren’t skimpy and making sure prices weren’t extravagant are important for a neighborhood restaurant. That’s the lesson learned after Cantina 1910’s Yelp-inflicted demise a block south from Bar Roma.
"Cantina 1910 was too high-end and River North and I said definitely that’s not the direction we wanted to go," Zhu said. "When they closed down I wasn’t surprised."
Frank Fontana, the host of HGTV’s Design on a Dime and the upcoming Downtown Shabby, designed the rustic space using hefty amounts of reclaimed wood. There’s a 60-seat dining room and a bar area outfitted with plenty of electric outlets to power cell phones. Zhu sees the dining room appealing more to older customers. There’s a separate bar menu, which dining room patrons can’t order from, and they’ll serve until 1 a.m. That may appeal more to a younger crowd, Zhu said.