Chow Town

Chicago serves up a feast of Italian accents and flavors

From bread, to wine, to meats, to Nutella, the two-story, 63,000-square-foot Eataly in Chicago is a mecca for food lovers.
From bread, to wine, to meats, to Nutella, the two-story, 63,000-square-foot Eataly in Chicago is a mecca for food lovers.

To be completely transparent, I love Chicago. I wasn’t born there, but I grew up in the city’s northwest suburbs and returned to spend most of the ’90s in Chi-Town, working for WGN-TV, then launching my own television show, “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert.” That stretch of seven short, amazing years allowed me to become completely immersed in Chicago’s food and wine scene, which was exploding with choices, talent and unparalleled cuisine.

I have a particular fondness for the food, wine and culture of Italy, and mid- to late-’90s Chicago helped feed my Italian appetite. Spiaggia, under then-executive chef Paul Bartolotta, was the greatest Italian restaurant in the country. Coco Pazzo focused on the cuisine of Tuscany like no other venue I’ve experienced. And over on Halsted, Carlucci’s was matching great Italian food with great Italian wine under the direction of general manager Aldo Zaninotto.

Zaninotto and I became, and remain, friends. He did a stint in the wine business, nearly launching his own wine import company. We are all so lucky fate intervened. When the wine deal fell through, Zaninotto returned to his first love, restaurants. He found a new partner, Cameron Grant, and opened two of Chicago’s most interesting Italian eateries: Osteria Langhe and, most recently, Animale.

I’ve written of Osteria Langhe here before. It’s a neighborhood restaurant focusing almost exclusively on the products of the Langhe region of Piedmont in northwest Italy — meat, pasta, wine, cheese — you name it. There aren’t too many cities outside of Turin where you can pull that off, but Zaninotto and Grant have turned Osteria Langhe into a huge hit and a destination for some of the top producers of Barolo and Barbaresco.

What Zaninotto and Grant did next, however, surprised even me. They went to a gentrifying neighborhood on Western Avenue and opened a fast casual restaurant serving items like rabbit livers, sweetbreads, braised tongue and blood sausage.

Animale, defined on the menu as “one that feeds itself to survive,” is still a baby, not even a year old. And, while there are still some kinks to be worked out (like how to accommodate more seats), the food is soul-satisfyingly good. Animale is not for everyone, but, boy, did it hit a sweet spot with me!

Divided into four sections: Primi (made in house), Panini (in between bread), Pezzi (deep cuts/untraditional parts) and In Piu (extra goodies), Animale is both a celebration and exploration of delicacies that are overlooked and disregarded. Would I eat everything on the Animale menu? Yes. Even the rabbit livers.

Liver has never been a favorite of mine, whether it’s from a rabbit or some other animal. But Animale’s rabbit livers are delish, served with thyme, mushrooms, shallots, Madeira and toast. Think of an even earthier pate and you’re in the ballpark.

The bacon-wrapped sweetbreads with spicy Belgian endive leaves and mustard honey are some of the best I’ve had. The Wagyu beef tongue in a puttanesca ragu was rich and loaded with flavor.

I passed on the tripe and blood sausage. OK, so maybe I won’t eat EVERYTHING on the menu. But the six or seven dishes we did sample were stellar. Oh, and before I forget, if you go you have to order the plin, a hand-made ravioli served with house pancetta and arugula. It’s a crossover item from Osteria Langhe that’s so good and so popular that Zaninotto and Grant are selling it retail.

Speaking of retail, my next Italian experience in Chicago came earlier on the same day of our visit to Animale. My wife and I went to Eataly, Mario Batali’s homage to Italian food, wine and culture. The first Eataly opened in New York. The Chicago version appeared three years ago. This was my first visit, so shame on me. It will not be my last. I posted on Facebook that I could live there, which was meant as a joke. But the more time I spent in Eataly, the truer that statement became.

Eataly has everything an Italian food and wine lover would want. Fresh meat? Check. Fresh seafood? Some of the freshest I’ve seen. A deep selection of Italian wine. Uh huh. Eateries in which to sample everything from pizza and pasta, to paninis, to gelato. You bet. Heck, there’s even a whole bar area dedicated to Nutella.

In all, Eataly features more than 20 dining options over its two-story, 63,000-square-foot space. We had a pizza, which was delicious if a tad pricey. But, then, what would you expect dining in the Walt Disney World of Italian food and culture? I brought home some speck and bought some olive oil and pasta for friends of ours who appreciate such things. I can’t wait to return to Eataly, to Animale, and to that great city of Chicago!

Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.