I keep meaning to go back to Tartufo (which I only went to once when it first opened) to offer some kind of summation of the unexpected Italian strip along Lincoln in putatively Germanic Lincoln Square, which now includes Bistro Campagne, Bella Domani, the old neighborhood favorite La Bocca della Verita and (most frequently cited here) Pizza DOC, if you extend it around a corner onto Lawrence. While I suppose there's nothing that unusual about five Italian restaurants within a few blocks in a yuppifying neighborhood, it seems an especially good and authentic group for a neighborhood not particularly inhabited by Italians.
But instead I went to Fortunato down at Damen/Division, easily the chicest spot yet along that hot strip. Why? Because it was there, I guess. Been a lot of hype about it being very authentic Italian (not Italian-American). Figured I could get in easily on a drizzly Sunday night.
It's a very pretty room, in similar blacks and greys to Tournesol (clearly the colors of the season). The kitchen is visible behind glass, and amazingly, the people back there seem to act like chefs on TV who know they're being watched, yet manage to produce the food anyway. I had hopes for it because Jennifer Newbury, the chef, was at Sole Mio for many years, which I always liked.
But I have to admit I was kind of underwhelmed. There are certain places where minimalism produces a wonderful concentration of essential flavors-- I've had that at MK, Trio, etc.-- and others where it just leaves me, at least, wishing for more oomph in a dish. Crofton On Wells had that effect on me, and so did Fortunato. I appreciate the refusal to make absurd combinations, but the richness and extroverted flavor I want from the label "Italian" wasn't there.
A starter of polenta with bits of duck and a broth was blah except for the bites that included one of the marinated prunes. A primi of papardelle with a pork ragu had admirably al dente fresh pasta but the ragu just wasn't that exciting or multidimensional and you really had to avoid the big blob of ricotta in the center, which basically acted as a Flavor Extinguisher. And finally, the grilled swordfish (wood-grilled fish being apparently a prime draw) tasted mainly of the greens sprinkled on it, not the grill, and seemed almost grassy, which didn't seem at all right for a pretty meaty kind of fish. Again, if the broth had been really rich and multidimensional, it would have saved the day, but it was sort of plain, too. Call me a barbarian who just wants puttanesca on everything, but it just seemed too damn subtle all around.
Anyway, that all put me in mind of a meal at Bella Domani a few weeks back. This is next door to Tartufo's, across from the Davis theater at Wilson and Lincoln, and it's easily the snazziest of the Italian places along there, with a black and white look that's very River North or something (though not as upscale as Tournesol a few blocks away). The chef is the daughter of a family that apparently owns some south side red gravy places, and that 's pretty much dead on as a description of the food-- not red gravy, but the kind of food that the trendier daughter of a red gravy family would make. So it's partly nouvellish Italian and partly the upper end of the old school (my wife had spaghetti carbonara, I had saltimbocca) and everything seems to come with an arancini (a Sicilian thing, apparently, that's like a ball of risotto).
My impression overall was that the food sort of came out like when a home chef aims a step or two above their abilities; things were ambitious and not quite there. (A lighter hand with both the prosciutto and the cheese would have helped the saltimbocca, for instance, at the risk of offending those who want a glacier-like overhang of melted cheese on such dishes.) But it was all satisfying, and you sensed their striving and eagerness, and wanted to encourage them to keep at it. Which makes me wish that I had gone there again, instead of the far more accomplished and professional place that somehow, just didn't click for me.
2005 W. Division St.
4603 N. Lincoln Ave.