February 25, 2013
Who eats: Loop business types and conventioneers.
Why eat: Executive chef Geotano Ascione, who arrived in August, has installed a rustic Italian menu ("strictly on the Italian standards," he points out) that makes good use of the open kitchen's domed, wood-burning oven. The South Loop location is equidistant from the Loop and McCormick Place.
Ambience: Opened in 1999 in a Prohibition-era building that reputedly was a one-time speakeasy, Gioco (which means "game," as in a game you play) exudes rustic and gritty charm. The two-level space includes a sunken dining area within distressed brick walls. Focal points include stacks of wine bottles (alluding to the budget-friendly Italian wine list) and the open kitchen; the sidewalk cafe is a popular sunny-day destination.
Dress code: Business casual rules during the week.
Noise factor: When full, considerable. But lunch service is relatively undiscovered.
Overheard: Chef passionately discussing the menu.
Service: Our waitress seemed hesitant and inexperienced, though she could provide opinions on her favorite dishes.
Cellphone reception/Wi-Fi: Reception strong even in lower level; free Wi-Fi.
Reservations: 312-939-3870, or through opentable.com.
Menu: Compact assortment of seafood and vegetable appetizers, pizzas, pastas, and a few main plates. Dinner menu has more heft.
Reliable options: Thin, blistered-crust pizzas are delicious, particularly the wild mushroom and goat cheese version ($14) anointed with truffle oil. Beef and veal meatballs bathed in tomato sauce and basil ($9) are very good, as is a simple salad of steamed asparagus ($7) with chopped egg and Parmesan cheese. The pasta to try is the paccheri (think extra-large rigatoni) with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella and drizzled olive oil, a bit of Neapolitan heaven ($12).
Expect to pay: $46-$60 for two.
Contacts: giocorestaurant.com, or 312-939-3870.
-- Phil Vettel