All the talk about Sabatino's that's been on this board got the better of me last night, and I convinced my wife to make the trip up to Irving. This was her first visit (both to Sabatino's and my old 'hood), and it won't be her last. In short, it was a really great meal and better than I recall. Are there more exotic meals available? Yes (see the "I, Moron" thread, below, for example). Are there meals with fancier or more "prime" graded ingredients? Certainly, although you pay a lot more for them and everything here was at least in the B+ to A range of quality. And the atomsphere and cost/quality ratio are tough to beat, on any standard. Clearly still a favorite with the neighbors, it's a good thing we got to Sabatino's early (just before 6:00), because the place was packed to the rafters when we left two hours later.
Regarding the specifics, we started with a nice (tall pour) of prosecco and some seafood appetizers (in addition to the stellar cheese bread and regular Italian loaf that accompany every meal). At $6.95, the shrimp cocktail was one of the best bargains I've had in a long time. Five fresh, near-prawn size shrimp in a huge porcelain clamshell of ice, good bite to the hot sauce (which may or may not have been prepared inhouse, I didn't ask, but was good enough even if it may have been from a jar). My wife had a good experience with the baked clams, although in honesty she needs to report the first one had a bit of grit in it that created some concern; however, she reports the remaining critters were all gritless and delicious. (A note of curiousity: My wife is from Syracuse, NY and notes the relative lack of interest in clams in Chicago, compared to her native town's fascination with them, including Italian restaurants but also neighborhood clambakes, etc. Chicagoans, on the other hand, seem to adore mussels instead of clams (I like both). We have our hypotheses, but wonder what others think about this issue?)
The minestrone was vegetable-heavy, with good flavor and just the right temperature. Neither one of us could resist blue cheese dressing on our iceberg lettuce salads, and were pleased to find mounds of fresh blue cheese crumbles piled on. I had the large "Chef's Cut" NY strip, probably 24 oz, which was very well grilled and matched my expectations for the price ($25, which included the bread, soup and salad). Not expense-account steakhouse good, but not expense-account steakhouse expensive, either. Definitely a solid effort and consistent with the Italian steakhouse model. My wife had nothing but compliments for her veal dish. The side of pasta in bolognese was better than it needed to be. Both entrees and pasta matched well with a '99 Barolo that nominally was way too young to drink but happened to work out fine (and at $97 was actually a bargain compared to what I see charged for similar wines elsewhere -- in general, Sabatino's wine list is pretty well put together and modestly priced). We finished the only way one could finish this meal, with the baked Alaska -- $6.95, serves two. The sparkler and flaming service drew attention and our dessert became the topic of conversation for several minutes for at least two neighboring tables of diners. Baked Alaska is a dish you eat not for how it tastes (although it was pretty good, and generous), but how it looks and feels to order. And that was darn nice.
When I lived down the street from Sabatino's 12 years ago, it was basically the only game in town (other than maybe Manzo's at Kedzie and Irving). Many things clearly have changed in this neighborhood, as evidenced by the Starbucks on Irving a couple blocks east of Sabatino's, but Sabatino's has not changed much at all. I did note to my wife that I didn't think they had bottles of herbed olive oil on the tables the last time I was there, so that's one of the only minor concessions to "trendiness" you're likely to find here. Sabatino's is outside the world of trendiness; it has a real elegance and friendliness and despite all the tongue-in-cheek comments about "70s chic" and "Casino" in some of the earlier posts, Sabatino's is the real deal, not the Italian-American pavilion of some northerly outpost of Epcot Center. (Oh, and one last thing. We sadly didn't get a grotto table; without reservations, we had to sit under the trellaces in the front room, which was almost as good.)