Thanks, bryan and annieb, for the reviews. We are going there with a largish group, and the folks organizing know the owners and already know who our waitstaff will be, so maybe we won't have to wait so long :) We'll also call to see if they will let us do BYO with a corkage fee.
I checked with my husband and we think this is the Italian on Peterson we've been to a couple of times. We continue to search for a good, reasonably priced (a plate of pasta, not meant to choke a horse, slightly under 10 bucks, a decent appetizer for 5 bucks, and we'd be happy). There are two Italian restaurants in that stretch of Peterson, both white tablecloth type of places, both on the south side of the street. The other one (maybe Martini's or something like that) has always been empty when we've been by, not a good sign, and the menu is a little, shall we say, standard.
Via Veneto is very decent, it's a family place. There are some pluses and some minuses. On the plus side, the food is decent and there are some specials that are really quite good. They do a Chilean sea bass on spinach with white beans. On the minus side, I try not to eat Chilean sea bass. They generally bring you a complimentary order of bruschetta, which is a just ok version of chopped tomato salad on toasted Italian bread. I have had a nice risotto there, and basically have never felt that you aren't getting value for your money, food-wise.
I guess that brings me to the minuses. They bring you the bruschetta because you have usually had to wait to be seated, and the bar is tiny and smoky, and I'm pretty tolerant of smoke. The whole restaurant is crowded. It looks like it was at one time a storefront with apartment behind; there's lots of little nooks and crannies, there are about half a dozen seats up three steps on a little platform that must have been at one time a window display area. Why doesn't somebody tell restaurants that use little tiny two tops that they ought not to try to use those giant plates with big flat rims, just so they can sprinkle parsley on the rims? By the time you've got the bread, the salt/pepper/sugar, the obligatory candle, the plates, and water and wine glasses, it's impossible. I always want to just ask them to take away the candle, salt/pepper/sugar.
They have a regular menu and a pretty extensive list of "specials", but think of the specials more like the "house specials" at a Chinatown restaurant. It's their take on stuffed pastas, etc. I think they claim to have a patent on stuffed gnocchi, although I've seen it in the frozen food section at Caputo's. I did once have a great seasonal pasta there, a cavatappi with roasted vegetables which I copied and was a standard pasta for me the past two summers and always got great reviews.
The decor is a bit of weird/wonderful. Lots of "sofa-size" paintings, and some of them actually have tiny lightbulbs installed to illuminate them.
They need to improve their wine by the glass selection. Especially if you have to wait in the bar. They have an ok, but not extensive or exciting wine by the bottle list, as I recall.
I guess you could get in and out for a pasta (probably even a couple, if only ravioli and mostaccioli) for under $10. But that's not what looks good, and by the time you've gone there, waited, and are ready to order, you (me) start to feel like I want a little more, and like Via Veneto isn't quite as good as it ought to be.
In the summer they have outdoor seating on Peterson, complete with plastic plants and vines. There are very few places in Chicago that I think of as good outdoor dining spots, and that stretch of Peterson isn't one of them. To my mind, it's just a way to shorten the wait and serve more dinners.
All that said, I'm not sure we wouldn't return. Like I said, sometimes you just need a plate of pasta, and it's better to go with the familiar.
The other place you mentioned is named Martino's and while it doesn't always do a bustling dining room business, it lives quite well on it's carry-out and delivery. In the last few years it's overextended it's self on goofy menu ideas trying to copy other places stuff - i.e. bruschetta, etc. but as far as standard Italian-American fare, it's quite passable. They make a ministrone with lots-o white beans that's delicious. A chicken oreganoto I really like and the veal dishes are good too. I've never had the pizza but know people who won't order it out from any other place in the hood. The ribs are good too. Don't be so quick to pass it by. It's been there forever and the people are extremely helpful and pleasant. This is definitley a place you can feed well for about 10-15$ a head, without wine, and not feel as crowded as you do at Via Veneto. Although they too have the silly outside tables in the summer. Would you like some car exahust with that?!
we went on Saturday (1/18/02) and had a group of 12. We didn't have to wait to be seated, in fact, it wasn't crowded at all. Our reservation was 7:30, and a couple without a reservation walked in before us and were seated right away.
No smoke, but in our nook in the back it smelled weirdly of cleaning fluid and dirt. We did get the complimentary bruschetta anyway, it was fine, but must be better in the summer with real tomatoes instead of plastic pink ones. We also got fried calimari and mussels arrabiata for the table. The calimari were fine, as calimari go (not a huge fan) - tender and not overcooked. The mussels were fine, the sauce was fantastic. The mussels themselves were fresh, but teeny tiny little things. On the order of what you can get at Whole Foods.
Wine by the bottle was a decent list and reasonably priced, although they had vintages listed that they were out of (they had the next year of the same wine). I had a special, chopped veal with chestnuts wrapped in pasta sheets (like funky dumplings) in a tomato cream sauce. Very tasty. My husband had wild mushroom risotto, which he thought was heavy - cooked as though they had dumped all the liquid in at once.
Overall it was fine, but I don't think we'd rush back. What did someone say earlier? It was "OK".