Travel restrictions to Europe lifted last week, but for many people, Paris still seems very distant. For those would-be travelers, restaurateur Aldo Zaninotto has opened Soif, a new wine lounge the basement of Testaccio, his second Logan Square Italian restaurant, that recreates, to the best of his ability, an underground Parisian wine bar.
Zaninotto is a frequent visitor to Paris, and when he’s there, he spends a lot of time looking at wine bars. “There’s a great sense of energy in Paris,” he says, “a new generation of sommeliers opening beautiful little wine bars with four or five tables. It’s like a speakeasy. You knock on the door, someone looks through the window and lets you in.” One particular bar was lit by candles and filled with antiques, and warmed by rugs and a soundtrack of music that Zaninotto describes as “energetic, not jazzy.” He thought the concept would travel well to Chicago.
Soif, which means “thirst” in French, debuted on Wednesday and recreates that Paris bar in a basement filled with antiques and other elements meaningful to Zaninotto — there are red vinyl and velvet banquettes salvaged from Le Sardine, the famed West Loop French restaurant that was founded by his late friend, beloved Chicago chef Jean-Claude Poilevey. The space is small — it seats just 24 to 26 people — and reservations are strongly encouraged to secure a table. The music is provided by Zaninotto’s son, Alec, who DJs under the name “Arsene.”
Besides owning Testaccio, Zaninotto owns Osteria Langhe, the acclaimed Italian restaurant helmed by chef Cameron Grant. He also is a wine purchaser by trade and at Soif, he’s assembled an entirely French wine list, which will typically include 50 and 60 offerings, most by the bottle. Zaninotto’s own personal tastes run toward the classics, so he hired sommelier Alyssa Missurelli (Bar Avec, Cafe Cancale) to help him keep the list up to date. In recent years, he’s been pleasantly surprised by new natural wines. “It has a different profile,” he says. “When you buy a Burgundy from this region, from this village, your mind is already set, or pre-set, to have an expectation. When you go to a natural wine, there’s a new energy. It’s more experimental. It’s very exciting.” He wants to share that sense of discovery with his customers.
There’s also a brief menu of cocktails, made entirely from French spirits, but Zaninotto wants to keep the focus on the wine. It’s a change for the former Todos Santos space, the mezcal haven that sat below Quiote, the restaurant that resided upstairs.
Because he doesn’t have to pay rent on the space and because the food menu is made up of simple dishes that can be assembled by a bartender instead of a chef, Zaninotto can afford to sell the wine at a far lower markup than most bars typically would. Most bottles at Soif are $55 to $68, which, Zaninotto says, will encourage customers to take a chance on a wine that they might otherwise consider too expensive.
The afternoon after Soif opened, Zaninotto sat in the bar alone, remembering how it was the night before. People were talking and laughing and sometimes even dancing on the banquettes. “The word ‘soif’ has a lot of meanings in French,” he says. “The expression ‘soif de vivre’ means ‘thirst for life.’ This place speaks about it, about enjoying life with your friends and having fun. In the restaurant business, after COVID, we have to keep moving forward. We had to reset. Now we move on, thirst for the next adventure.”