The pizza at Quartino. Flickr/biskuit
The surest way for a restaurant to get on our "must review" list is to say that John Coletta cooks there. When it comes to fresh ideas and masterful preparation of Italian cuisine, he gets our vote for commander-in-chef
We first met him when he was wowing the critics at Caliterra, then followed him when he took his act to Carlucci. His impressive resume includes stints at world-class restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, Paris and Monte Carlo.
Now Coletta performs his kitchen magic as chef and managing partner at Quartino, a River North cognoscenti corner that's a ristorante, pizzeria, salumeria and wine bar all wrapped into one rockin' package.
Even with 450 seats spread throughout two floors and a sidewalk patio, Quartino has been packed practically every noon and night since serving its first grappa-cured salmon in 2005. The hip crowd in designer duds expects -- and gets -- an authentic osteria-enoteca experience offered by few restaurants this side of Italy.
It'a a rustic trip in urbane surroundings, a calculated mishmash of mismatched furnishings, silverware, vintage accents and towels for napkins. A tin ceiling and open kitchen help crank up a boisterous noise level.
Coletta assures a cool happening with an all-out Italian tapas concept that favors simple flavors in cured meats, Neapolitan pizza, artisinal cheeses and an all-Italian wine portfolio featuring exclusive labels and surprisingly reasonable prices.
Opening act in the small-plates production is sharable tidbits of made-in-house salumi -- Italian meats like sopressata, lonzino, bresola, copocollo and duck prosciutto.
They go perfectly with homemade giardiniera, Sicilian caponata, Calabrian fennel, Tuscan green beans, artichokes Campobasso and roasted peppers.
Then there's stone oven pizza that compares favorably with others touted around town. The dough is light and lightly salted, crust comes out wafer-thin with a blistered border and tomato sauce is vibrant with no canned taste.
Pasta is off the charts with a luscious lineup of ravioli stuffed with braised pork, speck and fava beans; orecchiette with fennel and sausage ragu; and potato gnocchi with green beans and arugula pesto. Risotto stands out in shrimp, asparagus and sausage formats.
Larger plates offer more to relish in the day boat sea scallops uplifted with lemon and caperberries, duck leg with Swiss chard and orange, and braised lamb shank with gremolotta.
There's no letdown in the desserts. Try to save some room for such decadent delights as Copa al Banana (vanilla gelato, biscotti, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and shavings) and a
Maneuvering in tight quarters and heavy traffic, servers remain attentive and amiable.
Quartino, 626 N. State, Chicago, serves lunch and dinner daily. Prices range from $8 to $19. Valet ($10)parking. Dinner reservations advised. (312) 698-5000.