Two years ago this month, my esteemed predecessor, Steve Dolinksy, listed his then top 5 Italian restaurants in Chicago:
1. Piccolo Sogno (WARNING AUTOPLAY MUSIC)
But a lot changes in two years. Piccolo Sogno now has a second location, Piccolo Sogno Due (WARNING AUTOPLAY MUSIC). Spiaggia’s Executive Chef Sarah Grueneberg made it to the top two in Top Chef. Terragusto closed, became Pastaterra, which closed, became MörSo, and that closed too — but that may have been cursed restaurant space because chef/owner Theo Gilbert opened Ripasso to good reviews, including Tasting Table‘s Heather Sperling. Ricardo Trattoria now has Riccardo Enoteca. Pelago’s owners actually opened a Japanese restaurant, Masaki, of which the Reader‘s Mike Sula wrote, “It may not yet be Chicago’s answer to Sukiyabashi Jiro, but there’s really nothing like it in Streeterville, or anywhere else in town.”
I’m currently investigating the Curious City question: “What are the area’s oldest diners and what are their stories?” Which brings up a lot of questions, starting with “What is a diner?”
Which made me wonder, what defines an Italian restaurant? Steve’s top 5 list had three criteria: housemade ingredients, nuanced flavors, and Italian pedigree. But how about a restaurant like Nellcôte or even J.P Graziano? What do old country identities mean to us in this country? How far are national cuisines allowed to evolve?
What even makes a restaurant top? And what are now the top five Italian restaurants in Chicago?
I have some ideas, but I’d love to hear yours.