When I first moved into my neighborhood, many years ago, there was exactly one place to eat (at night, anyway): a hipster burger place called Planet Cafe. A few weeks later I was exploring the area further up Lincoln, and spotted a picturesque Italian restaurant, rambling over two or three storefronts and bathed in a warm, welcoming Tuscan light, called La Bocca della Verita… the mouth of truth.
At the sight of it my heart ached with jealousy— why didn’t my neighborhood have one of these? The oh-so-life-in-the-big-city neighborhood Italian joint, presided over by the sturdy Italian mama and making comfy plates of what we then all called Northern Italian food. (Though we didn’t really know what that meant, except things did have basil scattered on them, and didn’t come buried in the lead weight of old school red gravy.) For me, at that time, it represented everything about what life in the city was supposed to be– cosmopolitan, continental, yet cozy at the same time. It was right up there with used book stores and the three-story Rose Records and checking out tiny theater troupes for $7 a ticket (anyone else see The Book of Blanche?) and art movies at the Fine Arts, among things that were What I Moved To This City For.
But as Tony Soprano said, remember when is the lowest form of conversation. So I’ll simply note the disappearance of nearly everything on that list except La Bocca della Verita. When I moved here, youthful Kansas emigre, I didn’t know Italian food from Franco-American spaghetti, so a return to La Bocca della Verita after many years was fraught with opportunities for you-can’t-go-to-your-old-new-home-again disappointment, except my expectations were fully primed for exactly that. And they were mostly right. If I know what the delicacy of Italian food is now, what subtlety is, I also know when it’s being made without them. And the food my younger son and I had was, what’s the nicest way to put it, pleasantly clumsy. Gooey gnocchi with trumpet blast tomato sauce. Gluey spaghetti carbonara with guanciale which was flavorful… including the flavor of smoked pork, which guanciale doesn’t normally have. Baked cod in a pool of lemony, garlicky liquid being the best of the evening, but still, most reminiscent of the days when I would be taken to lunch at Riccardo’s, an ancient downtown advertising hangout, and quickly learned to stick to fish as the thing they could damage the least.
I could name better renditions of everything we had. I could imagine someone else getting all Medici on this kitchen. But… it won’t be me, because their welcome to this bustling restaurant could not have been friendlier. The sturdy Italian mama’s smiles and consideration for my son’s wellbeing (even if it meant offering him a 7-Up refill he definitely didn’t need) were pleasures of life and community beyond mere gustatory pleasures. I don’t live in this neighborhood, I am no longer the starry-eyed youth, but for one night again, I felt the palest ghost of long-ago excitement at having places like this— real Italian restaurants, run by real Italians, everybody welcome— just a stroll away on the streets of my new metropolis. So here’s a kiss for La Bocca, and let cold hard Veritas take the night off.
La Bocca della Verita
4618 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
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Perhaps it’s Michelinmania, but everybody’s doing lists of The Best Restaurants in Chicago these days. Having launched one such list already, and just being one guy who can only eat at so many places, and what do you care how I rank The Purple Pig, I’m never going to have Gebert’s Top 25 or whatever. But what I will do is write up, as I did last year, a quarterly list of the best things I’ve eaten lately, which is hopefully soon enough that if you felt so inclined, you could try many of the same things I had. (Note: I have not included any of the Key Ingredient dishes, as they were one-offs which you probably couldn’t have. Although there’s at least one you could have something close to— Mindy Segal’s carrot cake at Hot Chocolate— and you’d be very happy if you did.)
Pork tamale from Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero.
• Navy bean soup, cold roast beef sandwich, and the house (Italian) sausage I used on a pizza, from The Butcher & Larder
• Tarte flambee and Paris Brest at Balsan
• Pork belly sandwich at Xoco, especially the second half reheated the next day
• Cassoulet at Leopold
• Brussel sprouts (but not cassoulet) at Maude’s Liquor Bar
• Toscano dry sausage, and others, at Old Town Social
• Rasher and egg sandwich at Owen & Engine
• “Fish taco” (sashimi with tortilla foam) at Perennial Poli
• Grilled salad and short rib agnolotti at Three Aces
• Lobster roll at Shaw’s, which just isn’t the restaurant for me otherwise, but oh man, that’s just dead on perfect
• Kebab sandwich or whatever it is at Mr. D’s Shish-Kabobs
• Leek soup at Rewster’s
• Goat cheese quiche at brunch at Nightwood
• Goat knackwurst at Three Floyd’s
• Chocolate doughnut from Munster Donuts (Munster, IN)
• Slice of sausage pizza at Doughboys
• Slice of ricotta sheet pizza at Italian Superior Bakery
• Coconut chimney cake at Chimney Cake Island
• Potato chips from Grahamwich
• All the tamales at Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero, an LTH discovery no one thought to make an LTH GNR
• Barbacoa, which I’d never had before at Tierra Caliente, but is clearly the backup choice whenever you doubt that the carne asada or pastor is as perfect at that moment as it should be
• Italian beef at Novi’s Beef, Berwyn
• Chilaquiles at Caffe Gaudi
• Montreal-style pastrami at the place in the French Market next to Pastorale
• Housemade pasta with braised pastrami at Inovasi (okay, that was from the last week of 2010, but I had already done my 10 best list before I went there and it deserves mention)