When I arrived at Viaggio’s in the Park my cab pulled into the restaurant’s own little driveway at 401 W. Fullerton Parkway. The place sits just down Fullerton from Lincoln Park proper. I liked the white mini-lights sparkling outside; they made me feel I was going somewhere special. And when I walked in, it was to a small outer chamber where a friendly coat check lady welcomed me to Viaggio – and promised not to let me forget my scarf.
Inside it’s warm and comfortable, gently lit and welcoming. My companion had arrived before me and was happily sipping her Cosmopolitan martini at the small square-shaped bar set in the corner of the intimate dining room. She mentioned how friendly the bartender was and how satisfying she found her drink, so I ordered a vodka martini for myself. Nicely made, with two pimento-stuffed olives. And the special touch was that she also gave me a blue-cheese stuffed olive on the side since I’d told her I loved blue-cheese stuffed olives, but not dirty martinis.
The room itself is intimate and has a touch of elegance with the white napery. Skip, our maitre d’, seated us and made us feel very welcome. Our server brought us a plate full of complimentary well-cooked red and green pepper pieces, a bowl of Parmesan cheese and some good bread. We were really hungry and it was delicious, so it was hard to resist eating more than one.
While we munched our peppers and cheese and bread, we debated about the appetizers. I’d read a lot about their famous Meatball Salad, a romaine salad dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar and accompanied by Viaggio’s own special homemade Italian meatballs. Just a few of the other appetizers included Shrimp Scampi ($15, a trip down memory lane but with modern touches of peas and cherry tomatoes), Beef Carpaccio ($16, pan-seared filet mignon slices served with peppercorns, Parmesan, capers and roasted red peppers), Grilled Seafood platter ($15, calamari, octopus and shrimp, gilled and served with house dressing), among many others. It is an extensive menu and we were having some trouble choosing.
But in the end, since we both love them, we decided to order the mussels – it was a special that night so I think the price was around $12. They were available in a red sauce or in white wine broth, our favored choice. We were excited when the steaming plateful arrived. But sadly, we couldn’t finish eating them since a couple of the nice plump creatures had gone bad, and despite our effort to find non-bad ones we felt like the broth was tainted.
Our server promptly took the dish back to the kitchen and let Skip know. He came to our table and apologized and assured us this was a first-time occurrence.
I'd also read a lot of favorable comments about the eggplant stack, so we decided to get one and split it. A generous portion ($12 for two stacks) arrived with very thin slices of eggplant, previously breaded and fried, layered with slabs of fresh, creamy mozzarella and thick fresh tomato slices. The two stacks were each topped with a small mound of nicely dressed arugula salad – a touch that kicked the flavor of the dish up a notch.
We were ready to order our entrees but couldn't get the attention of our server for some time. We’d earlier ordered a bottle of wine to go with our meal and, to my surprise, the server took my not-yet-empty drink away without asking if I had finished. Then we had to wait quite a while for him to refill our wine glasses. Eventually the general manager/soon-to-be owner Dave Flanzdaum came over and asked how we were doing. We appreciated his inquiry and were content to accept his entree recommendations for each of us.
At Dave's suggestion my companion ordered the sautéed perch ($24) from the regular menu. It consisted of a number of small chunks of fish fillet, lightly breaded and fried, and was served with crisply cooked fresh green beans and buttery garlic mashed potatoes that you know were real because there were still potato chunks in them. The serving was enough so that she could take some home and make a nice lunch another day.
Dave specifically recommended the brick chicken ($29) for me, and I was glad he did. Served with mashed potatoes. The side was broccoli raab, a delicious vegetable, but it's hard to cook so that the stem and the leaves are equally tender. The chicken was very good.. Its skin was permeated with savory seasonings, the meat was tender and nicely cooked, and the lemon-white-wine sauce was lip-smacking.
This Viaggio-exclusive chicken dish consists of a whole bird that is de-boned on the premises and butterflied before it’s cooked. Then it's browned in a skillet with a plate on top held down by a brick to encourage even cooking. The serving was very generous, and I was happy to take a sizable portion home. I enjoyed it for lunch the next day when the chicken still tasted surprisingly moist and tender upon being reheated. Happily there was enough left for another helping the next day.
The array of homemade pastas sounded delicious. The seafood linguini special with clams, mussels and shrimp sounded like a standout. But the regular menu is also studded with Italian specialty dishes like baked Penne in the Park ($18, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts in garlic-lemon white-wine sauce), Eight Finger Cavatelli ($16, housemade, hand-rolled pasta with Chef Vic’s special marinara sauce), and others. Or you can select a pasta of your choice and top it with an Italian sauce of your choice – everything from Arrabiata ($14, garlic, tomatoes & red chili) to Bolognese ($18, meat, tomato and vegetables) and Vodka ($16) to Alfredo ($16). If other dishes are any indication, I’m guessing you’ll be served a huge plate of pasta and sauce no matter which one you choose.
We made sure to save enough room for desserts, which I'd heard were very good here. We opted for the bread pudding and the tiramisu - and were not disappointed. The tiramisu was a little different from the usual - a delicate cloud of cream and cake, served well chilled, that I liked a lot. My companion's bread pudding was buttery and crisp and warm and just gooey enough - it was delicious. Everything looked very pretty, too (see photos).
Viaggio’s in the Park is a good place to enjoy a well-made cocktail or glass of wine. The menu leans toward generous portions of rich Italian food - with many items you're likely to be able to take home leftovers. Billing itself as "fine Italian dining," Viaggio also does catering, corporate events, and parties. Plus check out the menu for Viaggio’s in the West loop, their original location, at 1330 W. Madison. You’ll find an even more comprehensive variety of rich Italian dishes.
Happily the coat check lady was as good as her word that night. I did, indeed, arrive home with my scarf still in my possession.