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Jun 14, 2011 09:15 PM

Italian in Downtown Chicago

Looking for the best Italian outside of Italy here whats your thoughts anyone.

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  1. Well, there are different styles of Italian. Also there are different parts of downtown Chicago. Are you only looking in the Loop, or near North Michigan Avenue, or where, exactly?

    Chicago's Italian restaurants have improved dramatically in recent years and now have some of the most creative cuisine in the city. Also, some of the top chefs have moved around a bit as opportunities have opened up.

    If I had to choose one place as our best Italian restaurant, it would still have to be Spiaggia. Under chef-partner Tony Mantuano's supervision, Spiaggia is still great, and is still the only truly high-end Italian restaurant in the city, with unusual ingredients, lengthy tasting menus, a huge wine list, formal style (jackets for gentlemen), and the highest prices of any Italian restaurant here. A year or two ago it was a finalist for the James Beard Award for best restaurant in the country. But not everyone wants to pay $40-50 for entrees, or $200 or more per person for dinner. Spiaggia is in a class by itself, but otherwise, let's move on to discuss some more affordable choices.

    Of the mid-priced Italian restaurants, we have some great ones. I would have to say that right now, Piccolo Sogno would be my top recommendation in this group. I loved my dinner there last month, as I noted in my detailed report in the topic at Everything there was wonderful, from the housemade bread and crostini, to the appetizers and entrees, right through to the desserts. Many of the dishes have a contemporary style to them, but they also do the classics well too. And chef-owner Tony Priolo was keeping a watchful eye over everything. The atmosphere is lively bistro, and it's in River West.

    Todd Stein is also doing wonderful contemporary Italian cuisine at the Florentine in the new JW Marriott in the Loop. And his former place, Cibo Matto, continues to flourish in the new Wit Hotel in the Loop, and the atmosphere is high-class contemporary. Vivere, a longtime favorite, is also doing some contemporary style Italian food and it's still excellent. It's in the Italian Village complex in the Loop; the decor is rather gawdy and it's very big with the theater crowd (a lot of diners leave around 7:15 and it's less crowded after that).

    Two more longtime Italian restaurants continue to turn out excellent Italian cuisine - Cafe Spiaggia, the moderately-priced sister restaurant next door to Spiaggia at the north end of the Mag Mile, and Coco Pazzo, Chef Priolo's former employer near the Merchandise Mart. Also, Tony Mantuano is running Terzo Piano, the restaurant in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute in the Loop (you don't have to pay museum admission to eat there), but it's only open for lunch daily and Thursdays are the only night for dinner. Chef Mantuano is also working on a new Italian restaurant to take the place of Bistro 110 after it closes August 4.

    If I had to pick only one place as the best Italian restaurant in Chicago, it would have to be Spiaggia if money is no object, and otherwise, Piccolo Sogno. But all of these places are really excellent and you can't go wrong with any of them. We are fortunate to have so many great Italian restaurants here!

    Website links: (Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia)

    8 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      I agree with nsxtasy on most points except going to spiaggia. It is high end and absurdly priced. I wouldn't go there again if I were paying. I do eat there when I am not paying and on those occasions I really like it. I've been eating there since the 1980's and liked it better when Mantuano wasn't at the helm. I do like Cafe Spiaggia (go figure) for it's bang for the buck and pristine Italian emphasis on ingredients. Spiaggia has that as well but it feels like robbery. I haven't been to Cibo Matto under the new chef but I did like it. Vivere is a really good restaurant which can't seem to break out of it's Italian Village links. It is great place for pre-opera dining at the Lyric. I really like Pelago which is located at the Rafaello hotel on the Gold Coast. The chef is from Italy and married to an American architect and I love his food. Piccolo Sogno has me confused. The chefs and owners keep reinventing this space under new names. I've liked a few of it's incarnations but wonder why it keeps failing. It is not the BEST location but it has parking. This is a pretty big deal in Chicago.

      I did not know that Bistro 110 was closing. It has been around forever. The group that manages it also manages the Spiaggia siblings. While I didn't love Bisto 110 I did like it as a place to go after shopping.


      Cafe Spiaggia
      980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

      Cafe Spiaggia
      980 West 2nd Avenue, Gary, IN

      71 W Monroe Street, Chicago, IL 60603

      980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

      Cibo Matto
      201 N State St, Chicago, IL 60601

      1. re: KateBChi

        The OP asked for "the best Italian outside of Italy here" Spiaggia is unquestionably expensive. Cafe Spiaggia is a more moderately priced version of that.

      2. re: nsxtasy

        I wish I would have seen this post before my recent trip to Chicago. We had 2 Italian meals while we were there last week. One we hated and one we loved. Our first dinner out was at Volare on Grand Ave recommended by the Fairmont concierge. We sat inside which was stuffy, stale, dark, outdated (the patio view was equally unappetizing). We should have known better and left at this point as another guest did beside us just a few minutes after they were seated. The meal was equally as terrible, over salted and not authentic Italian at all. I couldn't believe how busy the place was. Had to be a tourist trap or just a good location for pple looking to eat within walking distance of the local hotels. We expressed our displeasure back to the concierge who recovered by recommending Viaggio on W. Madison. We were willing to go the distance - wasn't far from Mich. Ave. we walked it there ( a bit of a hike ), but took a cab back to the hotel @ $10 cab ride. The service was attentive, the food delicious, and the atmosphere was clean and casual. We had peppers stuffed with sausage & mussels marinara for our app - which my 8 yr old daughter loved sopping up her bread in the juice (YUM). Our entrees were pasta carbonara, spaghetti w/ shirimp, and red snapper vesuvio. We altered the entree a bit from the menu which they were very whiling to accommodate. We were absolutely stuffed and skipped dessert. Our third and final night we decided to eat Cuban, but highly contemplated going back for seconds. We will def. go back to Viaggio on our next Viaggo to Chicago!!

        201 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

        Viaggio Ristorante and Lounge
        1330 West Madison, Chicago, IL 60607

        1. re: foodie4fun

          Interesting...Volare is one of my favorite go to Italian places in the area.

        2. re: nsxtasy

          The menu at Piccolo Sogno looks just my speed food and stylewise but the reservation times for the weekend that I am there are awful (5:30 or 9). Is there a bar area a group of 2 could sit without a reasonable wait or some place that's comparable to it in style? I would love to have a lovely modern Italian meal.

          My husband and I ate at Spiaggia on our trip to Chicago last year. It was a lovely meal, but as former New Yorkers who ate at a lot of New York's top restaurants we found it absurdly overpriced. I'm not sure Cafe Spiaggia offers a much better value.

          1. re: kersie

            Cafe Spiaggia is a much better value. It's one of my favorite spots. Slow food.
            You almost might like The Florentine or Coco Pazzo.

            1. re: chicgail

              Agree with Chicgail 100% here. Having eaten at the majority of Chicago's top Italian spots and those in New York, not to mention DC and Philly, I think Cafe Spiaggia is an immense deal for the quality of the food, setting, and experience.

              Spiaggia itself is absurdly overpriced and I had a disgusting service experience that would prevent me from even considering a return visit.


            2. re: kersie

              Piccolo Sogno's bar is small and gets extremely crowded since they get so busy on weekends so I wouldn't suggest it as a dining option.

              The food at Cafe Spiaggia is arguably better but if you drink wine I disagree on it being a much better value. The wine prices are marked up quite a bit at Cafe Spiaggia while Piccolo Sogno actually has extremely reasonable prices.

          2. Best as in food? Coco Pazzo or Spiaggia.
            Best in service and treating you as a valued guest? Not Spiaggia.
            Best in "overall" bang for the buck, actually Cafe Spiaggia. The food is nearly as good as Spiaggia, the service less obnoxious, the location pretty if by the windows, and the price ~1/2 Spiaggia and 3/4 Coco Pazzo.


            Cafe Spiaggia
            980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

            Coco Pazzo Cafe
            636 N St Clair, Chicago, IL 60611

            980 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

            1 Reply
            1. re: uhockey

              Spiaggia and Cafe Spiagia may also be the closest to authentic Italian that I've had in Chicago. Both are Slow Food destinations.

            2. >> Piccolo Sogno has me confused. The chefs and owners keep reinventing this space under new names. I've liked a few of it's incarnations but wonder why it keeps failing.

              Previous restaurants, chefs, and owners on that site - including Timo and Thyme from John Bubala - have NOTHING to do with Piccolo Sogno and I don't know why you would make any association with them. Tony Priolo left Coco Pazzo to open Piccolo Sogno three years ago when the space became available, and the restaurant has been doing great business ever since. It is only relatively recently, about that same time, that the surrounding River West neighborhood has started to take off with other new restaurants nearby. This is how neighborhoods become trendy - a new, really great, "destination" restaurant opens and attracts people to the area. I don't think it's fair to speculate on why previous places on that site didn't do well, when the simple fact is, Piccolo Sogno is doing exceedingly well.

              Most (maybe all) of the replies here are from people who have not been to Piccolo Sogno. I encourage all of you - locals and out-of-towners alike - to try it and find out for yourself why it continues to be one of the "hottest" places around and the best mid-priced Italian restaurant in town - the delicious food! (The outdoor patio is also lovely on nice-weather evenings.) I would also encourage you to try the Florentine, Cibo Matto, and Vivere, as they are worthwhile places as well, and belong right up there with longtime places Cafe Spiaggia and Coco Pazzo. But Piccolo Sogno is the one to try first!

              Piccolo Sogno
              464 N Halsted, Chicago, IL 60622

              1 Reply
              1. re: nsxtasy

                You are right and I stand corrected. I don't know why I assumed Piccolo Sogno was under the same helm as Thyme and Timo. The menu looks nice and I will definitely try it as soon as possible. I really liked the outdoor eating area at the restaurant formerly called Timo (although I only ate there when it was Thyme). Besides it has parking!

                Timo Restaurant
                464 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60622

                Piccolo Sogno
                464 N Halsted, Chicago, IL 60622

              2. No one mentions Prosecco ( much but I have always liked it. It's what they call "upscale comfort food from all 20 regions of Italy". Located in River North. It's definitely more of a formal/classy ambiance. I have always had great service both at the bar and tables. The complementary glass of prosecco at the beginning of your meal is a nice touch. I find it pleasantly different from the typical american-italian restaurants you can find almost anywhere, great food and service.

                For a very different flavor I love Davanti Enoteca ( although I guess it is not technically downtown as it's on Taylor St near UIC. One of my favorites.

                There's a couple of good options not typically mentioned in the Italian food threads.

                1 Reply
                1. re: ticomojo

                  My wife and I were at Prosecco a couple of days ago. After Piccolo Sogno and Pelago, we felt let down. My wife doesn't drink, so the prosecco aperitif was lost on her, and mine tasted like the bottle had been open for a couple of days. The limoncello after dinner was similarly wasted - my wife still doesn't drink, and I don't care for limoncello. It would have been nice if they had asked first.

                  In between, the menu was interesting and the food was good. I had the veal scaloppine, my wife had the tagliatelle with salmon, and we both enjoyed them. The apple torte was also good. But the service wasn't so hot. Every time they brought new cutlery it seemed to be thrown at us, rather than carefully placed, and forks always seemed to be on the right. It was also loud, not what we expected in a restaurant alleged to be "romantic," and the music was both louder than it needed to be and too eclectic.

                  All in all, I wouldn't give it more than three stars, and I'd in that area I'd hurry to Piccolo Sogno or Pelago instead. I certainly would make it a destination restaurant.