Sky Full of Bacon

#36 Fianco: Trionfo or Bunko?

So I was talking with a couple of friends about Great Lake, and though all admirers of the pizza, we agreed that it being named the best pizza in America by Alan Richman in GQ had more to do with a magazine’s need for the kind of buzz that you get from “owning” the discovery of a great new food spot that nobody else has found yet. Great Lake— artisanal pizza of very high quality from a hot food city, yet so new that it wasn’t really on the national radar yet— fit the bill perfectly; and so did Snow’s, the improbable Saturdays-only barbecue joint that Texas Monthly plucked from obscurity and anointed the best BBQ in Texas a couple of years ago, shaking up a competition whose top ten had been so fixed for so long it could be recited by most Texas schoolchildren.

So that was the mindset I was in when I read this in Time Out barely 12 hours later, about a hitherto unheralded Italian spot on the Sex and the City Southport strip:

Who the hell is Matt Troost, and why haven’t I heard his name before? More to the point, why hadn’t I eaten his food until a recent meal at Fianco?… It’s surprising, to say the least, that a chef with no reputation, in a restaurant on a notoriously generic strip, would be putting out such a dish. Yet with each subsequent plate, Troost proved this was no coincidence. This is a guy who clearly knows how to manipulate flavor….

Admittedly, David Tamarkin stopped short of any “best Italian restaurant in Chicago” hype. Still, he was doing a pretty good job of trying to elevate this neighborhood obscurity into the ranks of, at least, the top neighborhood Italian spots, with all the bragging rights that would accrue to the first guy to find a place. So I packed up the family and we set off to see if this really was the marvel he said— or if he’d been carried away by his excitement and wishful thinking.

It was still fairly empty at almost 6, though perhaps by 7:30 or 8 it isn’t. Later, I heard someone congratulate the chef (for reasons I didn’t catch); that was the only possible sign that Time Out’s praise was being felt here, there definitely weren’t hordes of trendy Time Out-clutching twentysomethings fresh from buying new shoes and artisanal absinthe on Southport.

We started with the chicken liver pate, creamy pate well paired with “strawberry preserves” (well, some preserved strawberries, anyway). It was every bit as nice and flavorful as you would hope it would be.

Two of us had pasta dishes. The winner of the night, pretty comfortably, was this ravioli with mint and peas in cream sauce. The ravioli were delicate and velvety, the sauce sang of bright spring flavors, cheerful and distinct; as good an Italian dish as I’ve had anywhere in recent memory.

More conventional was this bowl of canned tomatoes, some shaped pasta, and lamb sausage; what lifted it above the perfectly decent was the lamb sausage, zingy with the contrast of fennel.

The star among meat entrees was the (enormous) portion of braised and grilled pork with a salad of beans and greens. I liked my taste of this, but I felt like it was only 3/4ths of the way toward what it could be; it needed a sharper contrast from the grilling, some acidic bite in the comfy bean-salad atop it. I felt it was too understated, and only a couple of steps away from really popping.

Perfectly acceptable, but more ordinary, were some grilled scallops, again huge, in a nicely bright pea puree. This too seemed understated and would have benefited from something on the plate that offered some real contrast, like an onion marmalade or something.

Banana-chocolate bread pudding, shared four ways, made a nice conclusion, though overall I didn’t find the dessert list all that interesting.

So we were not quite as dazzled as Tamarkin. But still, take 20% off the top and his assessment was largely right— on a strip where Italian has meant suburbanite-safe places like Strega Nona, here was a neighborhood spot, of simple decor straight out of the exposed-brick-urban-restaurant kit, which at least was off to a start of making some things to rival the best neighborhood contemporary Italian spots in town, the Riccardo Trattorias and Merlos. Give the chef some time to push the envelope of a Southport restaurant located between a Potbelly’s and a Homemade Pizza, and everything he makes might be about as good as the best things we had. In the meantime, peas won’t be on the menu for very long, so go have those ravioli.

3440 N. Southport Ave.
(773) 327-6400

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