Chow Town

Trip to Chicago allows for return to Coco Pazzo

I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence. I realize this is Kansas City Chowtown, and I really do try and focus my attention on all things deliciously Kansas City.

But, every now and then, I experience something that makes me realize how much I love the restaurant scene in my hometown of Chicago, and I just have to share.

I had one such epiphany recently on a quick jaunt to Chicago, where I experienced two wonderful meals at two long-standing restaurants — Coco Pazzo and Shaw’s Crab House.

I hope to have more on Shaw’s in a future article. This is all about Coco Pazzo and owner Jack Weiss, a man I’ve known for 20 years and who’s been in the restaurant business most of his adult life.

“There’s just something special about being the author of a classic, refined restaurant,” Weiss said. He would know because Coco Pazzo is the epitome of a classic, refined restaurant.

So, how did it start? After managing several upscale Italian restaurants in New York, Weiss moved to Chicago in 1991 with his eyes set on his own restaurant. That restaurant was Coco Pazzo, which opened in 1992.

“When Coco Pazzo opened, it was the first Chicago Italian restaurant focusing on the regional cuisine of Tuscany,” Weiss said.

Although everything seems to be Tuscan-inspired these days, back then the idea of Tuscan cuisine provided a whole new world of flavors and ingredients. Weiss tapped into that world and brought it to Chicago. It certainly resonated with Windy City residents as Coco Pazzo has been a consistent winner.

I asked him if he considered Coco Pazzo an iconic Chicago restaurant?

“Absolutely. For more than 20-years, Coco Pazzo has provided Chicagoans with classic, yet contemporary, Tuscan Cuisine,” he said. “We successfully survived the economic downturn, and have always provided a consistent product in a comfortable atmosphere.”

Which brings me to my recent meal there. It was the first time I had dined there in nearly a decade, and it did not disappoint.

There were three of us at dinner: my wife, my daughter and me. I tried nearly everything that was ordered and everything I tried was exceptional.

First, let me say that Coco Pazzo is about as authentic as it gets when it comes to Italian cuisine. As mentioned, its focus is Tuscany and while I can’t say everything on the menu has its origins in Tuscany, I’d have to say the vast majority of the dishes come right out of the Tuscany seaside or rolling interior hills. And, while neither my wife nor daughter would split the Bisteca Fiorentino with me, I still had an amazing experience.

Let me start with my wife’s starter, Carpaccio di Manzo, thinly flattened beef Carpaccio served with a fennel salad featuring watercress, pecorino and a black truffle vinaigrette. Having had Carpaccio where they claim they invented it — Harry’s Bar in Venice — and having tried 50 or more versions from Italy to the U.S. to Argentina, I can safely say Coco Pazzo’s version is among the very best.

The beef is wafer thin, and the salad compliments rather than overwhelms I could have just had a large portion of that and been quite satisfied, but I had to settle for a bite or two and my own menu choices.

I began with the Pappardelle, which featured a while boar — cinghiale — ragu. I love cinghiale the way some people love bacon. In fact, I’d probably love cinghiale bacon, but I’m happy to settle for the ragu which was rich and flavorful, yet amazingly balanced and not at all overpowering. A glass of good Chianti Classico to help wash it down, and I could have been dining in the Tuscan countryside.

For my entrée, I went with the Branzino al Forno — whole Mediterranean Sea Bass — wood roasted in Ligurian olive oil.

Filleted for me table side and served with just a drizzle of the oil, the Branzino was terrific and delicate but packed with flavors and aromas. I turned to Campania, Naples’ home state for a Grecco di Tufo and it was the perfect foil for the fish, not too big as to overpower, but rich enough to handle the flavors and aromas imparted by the wood roasting.

There was more, much more, but I think I’ve made my point. Coco Pazzo was good 20 years ago but it’s better now — sort of like Sophia Loren hitting her full stride of grace and elegance.

Weiss thinks the restaurant has grown right along with the dining scene and palettes of Chicago.

“When Coco Pazzo first opened, the Chicago dining scene focused more on steakhouse/bar venues,” he said. “Today, it’s a world-class dining city with a wide variety of cuisines being offered. Because we were one of the first restaurants to feature Tuscan cuisine, in many ways, Coco Pazzo broke ground for what dining in Chicago is all about today.”

Too strong of a statement? Try a meal or two at Coco Pazzo before you decide. Let me know when you’re going. I’d be happy to tag along.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.