This is not your father's Spiaggia. It isn't even Obama's Spiaggia.
Chicago's finest Italian restaurant (and a favorite of You Know Who) closed for three months at the beginning of the year to accommodate a Mark Knauer redesign and send its about-to-be executive chef on an eating and cooking tour of Italy. Spiaggia reopened in May (just after its 30th birthday) as a restaurant transformed — more airy, more contemporary, but no less elegant.
"It was just a matter of bringing it up to date, making it feel modern — just lighten it up," says chef/proprietor Tony Mantuano. This included — brace yourself — the elimination of Spiaggia's long-held (but rarely enforced) jacket requirement. It certainly makes for a less-stuffy dining room, though I'll admit I wanted to burrata-slap the gent I spotted in cargo shorts and Hawaiian shirt. (Yes, "spiaggia" means "beach," but come on.)
The structure of the tiered dining room remains the same, and those gorgeous, marble-clad columns are still holding the ceiling up, but everything else is new. The lounge, once tucked into a corner and easily overlooked, is now a welcoming, front-and-center area just past the host stand; here, one can nibble on small plates, hams and cheese (including mozzarella di bufala, sliced from a giant braid on its own marble cart), tackle the spaghetti carbonara in 50-, 100- and 150-gram portions, and even order from the main menu.
The old linen-topped tables have been replaced by wood-grain tables, positioned so that every seat, even at the bar, has an unobstructed park/beach/lake view through Spiaggia's three-story glass wall. And the superb wine cellar, now overseen by Rachel Lowe, has new visual prominence, in the form of temperature-controlled wine walls on either side of the host stand.
I love it.
Chris Marchino, who is only 8 months older than the restaurant he now runs, is the executive chef, and he and Mantuano have almost completely redone the menu. The sole survivor is the gnocchi, still coddled in ricotta cream and topped with black-truffle sauce. "We felt," Marchino says, "that we'd end up making it anyway."
The menu format is unchanged; the a la carte selections are grouped into antipasti, primi and secondi categories (three courses plus dessert will cost about $105), and there's a six-course degustazione that runs from $145-$155, with optional $80 wine pairing. A significant change is in the presentation; Marchino's eye-catching plates are elegant and artistically pleasing, its elements spare and discrete in one course, playfully jumbled in another.
Nowhere is this enhanced visual emphasis more apparent than in the dessert course. Gone are the plated desserts, replaced by dolcini (little sweets) assortments in various sizes. When I saw this on the menu, my first thought was that Mantuano had figured out a way to charge me for mignardises, but most of these mini-desserts, nimbly executed by Nicole Guini, are on a higher order of complexity. Depending on the size you select (there are three, the largest of which comprises 25 tastes), you might encounter a parfait-styled tiramisu with coffee pudding, mascarpone cream and amaretto mousse; an upright gin-and-cucumber granita with exploding bursts of finger lime; a miniature semifreddo with vin santo and biscotti; a "truffle" of hibiscus-mango pate de fruit with milk-chocolate ganache; flourless chocolate cake topped with basil cream and passion fruit glaze; a white-chocolate macaron with sweetened Gorgonzola and/or a miniature bomboloni crusted with bacon-infused sugar.
I like the way the dolcetti are arranged, too, scattered about a wood plank but elevated by sticks and tiny pedestals of varying height, so that each of the dolci has its own visual moment.
I was happy with Spiaggia almost as soon as I sat down. First to the table are house-made grissini and flavored flatbread wafers, the former upright in a silver vase the latter propped up in a wooden stand built for just that purpose. Cocktails, while expensive, are excellent; I liked the Bee's Knees (a small paper cone of popcorn is clipped to the side of the glass with a tiny clothespin), and fans of the negroni cocktail will enjoy working their way through Spiaggia's four iterations of that classic.
Soon thereafter, Marchino will send out an amuse, perhaps a peas-and-fava mix accented by a pumpernickel tuile, or a generously thick slice of kampachi crusted with pickled poppy seeds (added texture), finger lime (acidic pop) and a dot of Calabrian chile oil (spice). The kampachi, in particular, is so well-conceived that your expectations for the rest of the meal rise another notch.
What follows is a parade of excellence. Wood-grilled scallops have been a mainstay of the Spiaggia kitchen, but the current version is more contemporary and indulgent; the single scallop is bracketed by clouds of truffled foam, alongside foie-gras torchon with black-truffle puree and some scattered pistachios and orange segments. Tiny piles of venison tartare are topped with smoked trout roe and dots of horseradish-lemon sauce; thin strips of 30-day-aged strip loin gambol with dots of sea urchin mousse, wagyu beef powder and pine nuts.
Besides the incumbent gnocchi, pasta options include foie-gras filled hazelnut-flour ravioli, each topped with a dot of rhubarb puree; and veal strati (think free-form lasagna), a layering of pasta sheets, veal cheeks, sweetbreads and morel mushrooms. I didn't love the risotto di mare; the arborio rice was flawless, and the inclusion of lake perch in the seafood melange was a clever touch, but the pickled celery was too powerful; what was surely intended as a grace note ended up being a dominant chord.
Large plates include a fine turbot, generously accented with three quenelles of Petrossian caviar, and dry-aged rib-eye with a spidery tuile of squid ink and balsamico (and, no, I have no idea how Marchino did that). Medallions of guinea hen, rolled around blue crab meat are sensational, the gentle flavors combining to make a powerful whole.
New general manager Serge Krieger (late of Travelle) seems to have elevated service here, and that's saying something. Wine service is particularly impressive; in addition to Rachel Lowe's presence on the floor, two cellar masters (wearing leather aprons) patrol the dining room as well.
I'll be interested to hear what POTUS thinks of all the changes to one of his favorite dining-out spots, but let me just say for the record, I'm Phil Vettel, and I approve this restaurant.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.