Cactus Bar & Grill stood in the South Loop financial district for more than three decades before the pandemic forced the neighborhood institution to close in 2020. Now, a veteran Chicago chef hopes to tempt visitors with comforting piles of delicate orecchiette and plump raviolo stuffed with pecorino and guanciale.
Cristian Mendoza and Petros Papatheofanis, the former owners of the Press Room wine bar in West Loop, have unveiled Terra e Mare, a new modern Italian restaurant with chef and partner Noah Zamler, who also oversees Irene’s Finer Diner in North Center. His team at 404 S. Wells Street highlights his family’s pasta-making legacy as well as seasonal midwestern produce and proteins.
A Michigan native with Jewish and Italian American roots, Zamler grew up learning to make pasta beside his mother and grandmother. From a tender age, he developed a love not only of the traditional techniques, but also the result of their labor: a crowded table of family members busily eating, laughing, and enjoying themselves.
At Terra e Mare, which translates from Italian as “land and sea,” he wants to channel that same experience of a joyful gathering while putting decided emphasis on vegetables such as lion’s mane mushrooms (white wine, capers, lemon, Castelvetrano olives), Brussels sprouts with Calabrian glaze, and celery root parmigiana.
“When I was younger, we had great experiences around the dinner table,” says Zamler, who was raised as a vegetarian. His mother, who later went on to open a pasta shop, knew how to make produce into a star — a quality he quickly discovered was rare among his peers. “Going to friends’ houses and eating a bad salad, [I learned] that a lot of people didn’t get that same feeling.”
Zamler’s notion of “land” extends beyond vegetables to include fruits, proteins, and even grains, including flour for pasta that he sources from well-known Illinois purveyor Janie’s Mill. Some components, like rice for a risotto that rotates daily, are imported from Italy but the kitchen is primarily reliant on partnerships with area farms including Nichols Farms, Slagel Family Farm, Urban Produce, and Mick Klug Farm. The opening menu features a Slagel pork porterhouse (heirloom beans, salsa verde) and Mezz’anatra (confit duck leg, dry-aged breast, farro risotto), as well as three kinds of pizza inspired by Zamler’s college years in Rome.
Perched near the South Loop border, Terra e Mare seats over 100 in its dining room and along its bar, where patrons will find classic cocktails with Italian spirits, a handful of imported and local beers, and an expansive wine list that ranges from Italy’s little known winemakers to some of its most famous vintners. Zamler hopes the location will be particularly attractive to South Loop residents who have become accustomed to traveling to the Loop or River North to dine.
In keeping with the restaurant’s culinary approach, upscale modern styling and a color palette of blues, oranges, and golds are grounded by family ties — dotting the walls are paintings by Zamler’s late grandfather, who favored images of vineyards and the Italian countryside. “I’m trying to weave these worlds a little bit and remind people that we are cooking Italian food,” he says. “We’re paying homage to everything that’s been done in Italy and we want to bring in some of those midwestern influences.”