I knew I was in for a bit of runaround when the bartender described wine #1 as, "Um, let's see, so this is Tuscan," he said, staring at the label, "So that means it will be blah, blah blah," which it wouldn't, and wine #2 as, "OK, now this one is made from" [pheonetic pronunciation approximated] "mal-va-SAY-shu and NEE-gro AM-uh-ro, which is a Valpoicella which means it will be blah blah blah," which it wasn't and also wouldn't. "And this one's a 1998, so it should be really great now," which wasn't entirely the case, either, given that it wasn't a wine really meant to age quite so much, but we ordered in nevertheless and were quite fascinated with it anyway, one of the two best things about our visit to Gioco, a restaurant operated by the same group who've dished out Marche, Red Light, Saiko, Opera.
We decided to celebrate Friday night here because it is well-liked by a friend of ours, and it was a nice experience, though one I don't need to return to, either. I was trying to get more info from the bartender to help narrow down the decent Ital or Cal-Ital wine list which included the aforementioned 1998 Candido Salice Salentino. We ended up ordering the aforementiond wine anyway, an interesting Puglian blend of Malvasia (not a Sangiovese/Valpolicella anything) and Negro Amaro. This was a fun wine, the Malvasia giving it a port-y nose and dried fruit/cocoa taste that we both enjoyed, though it may have lacked fruit b/c of age, or just the grape, I don't know. It went well with the meatier morsels of the evening.
The service there was friendly and helpful, if not entirely well-informed. It's a cozy, warm space with that trendy-yet-irritating boom-thump club music which immediately identifies it as a place that is going for a hip image. Sigh.
When our great waitress told us about wood-grilled specials, we snapped up a pizza and an octopus appetizer. Before they got there, bread was served, and once again I experienced that disappointment of, hey, it's a new place for me, maybe they'll have some great bread!...but no, not here. A step above generic, but at least the olive oil was great. All bread items continued to disappoint me. Pizza was nearly two-dimensional in its thinness and crispy as a cracker, but again, no flavor to the crust. Pleasant toppings, smear of tomato, cheese, prosciutto. And no wood flavor. More on that later. Octopus really nice and wood-smokey, though a bit oversalted, and mixed with capers, olives, potatoes. A nice dish if there were less salt and a more even cooking of the tentacles.
So, the pizza did not taste of wood, but the octopus did? We could see a giant, free-standing oven, glowing red inside, but with a gas tank attached to it. A gas oven to which they add wood chips? Anyone know about this contraption?
Busboys, servers, all very polite and friendly. And soon came out our mixed salumi plate. Wow, this was an appetizer, but with enough pork here to feed four. None of it that great to me personally, but I veer toward cured meats with smoke, garlic and/or wine. Doesn't mean they were bad, just not interesting to me. One salumi cut 1/2-centimeter thick, a bunch of prosciutto and another one that I forget. Served with 2 breadsticks also lacking any flavor.
[I'm a stickler for good bread, and it's not too hard to get better-than-bland tasting bread. Better flour (ok, maybe that's too hard?), a fresher grind (ditto?), increased contact with water, i.e. and extended fermentation...easy! Anyway, off my soapbox.]
The seafood risotto was nice, though undersalted and a bit overcooked, but full of lobstery broth and chunks. This portion was Maggiano's/Olympic God sized. And the best dish of the evening, a really nice tortellini in brodo, handmade pasta filled with sausage, turkey and chicken in a pleasantly rich chicken broth with sweet nutmeg notes all around. I really, really liked this, and don't see it often here in Chicago.
So, one great dish, one interesting wine (around $30, available retail for around $12), pleasant service, but the persistent feeling that someone's created this restaurant and it's being run by those trained to do what they've decided.