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An Ex-Engineer Turned Chef Promises Traditional Italian Cooking in River North

Torchio Pasta Bar should open next month

A bowl of pasta
Torchio Pasta Bar is soon opening on Wells Street.
Torchio Pasta Bar/Kevin Osterhout
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Chicago has plenty of Italian restaurants, but Bill Varley feels his new offering, Torchio Pasta Bar, will find a niche in River North. Varley and his crews have gutted the former Karyn’s Cooked, 738 N. Wells Street, to make room for their new endeavor. Varley’s a first-time restaurant owner who retired from his life as an engineer and executive last week.

The restaurant’s slated for a mid-May opening. Varley’s not the first engineer to enter the restaurant world. Robert Garvey took the same path with Robert’s Pizza Co. in Streeterville. For Varley, he’s held on to the dream of opening a restaurant for nearly a decade but just was waiting for his professional life to settle down. He tells a story about making pasta dinners during holidays. His young niece, Maggie, told him something that’s stuck with him: “Uncle Billy — who doesn’t like pasta?”

That conversation set in motion a chain of event toward opening Torchio. Varley, an avid home cook, has repeatedly visited multiple regions in Italy to study cooking. He mentioned a “nonna network” of Italian women who teach students kitchen secrets. Varley enrolled in these classes and learned to make pasta and other Italian delights. The approach is notable in a world where chefs go on foreign research and development trips, where a Portland burrito restaurant closes after the owners are accused of stealing techniques from Mexican cooks without compensation.

Pasta Bolognese in a parmesan crisp is part of the offerings.
Kevin Osterhout/Torchio Pasta Bar

While Varley isn’t Italian — he’s Irish and English — he believes his approach is what will make the restaurant successful: “As long as you have passion and drive and you really, really love something” you’re going to OK, he said. He’s not zeroing in on a specific area of Italy. For example, he’ll serve a pasta bolognese (the recipe comes from straight from an Italian grandma, Varley said) inside a parmesan crisp. Other dishes included a spring vegetable fettuccine with asparagus, zucchini, and lemon-basil butter, and a linguine aglio e olio. He’ll also have beef and veal meatballs and salumi platters.

Despite the number of Italian restaurants in Chicago, Varley said Torchio will be serving unique food. He raves about chef Sarah Grueneberg’s work at Monteverde in the West Loop. While he’s not going for that formal feel, he wants to take a similar approach.

Most recently, Varley served as the chief operating officer for the Midwest division of American Water Works. His sister, Jolene, and wife Janice, are helping him with the restaurant. They’ll also have a 16-seat patio and serve lunch.

Most would-be restaurant owners may make sketches of their dream restaurant on a cocktail napkin. But Varley used his engineering skills for a detailed rendering: “I didn’t use a straight edge,” he said with a laugh.

The 1,800-square-foot space has seating for 51 and features antique brass fixtures and a tin ceiling. Varley also made the hammered copper bar top himself. But the most important feature to Varley may be a photo of his niece. There’s a photo of Maggie wearing a Torchio apron and taking noodles out of a Kitchenaid pasta attachment.

Stay tuned for updates.