Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Alimentari Osteria brings the freshness of the Italian marketplace to Chicago's West Loop

Many Chicagoans were in love with the highly respected Italian restaurant, Pane Caldo, during its long run on Walton near Michigan Avenue. Now the same team, comprised of owner/proprietor Antoine Cedicci, his executive chef, Maurice Bonhomme and his chef de cuisine, Manuel Casa, have again joined forces to open a new restaurant, Alimentari Osteria, located in the West Loop at 621 W. Randolph in Chicago (312-382-8880; “Our goal was to create a casual and relaxing Italian restaurant that maintained the quality that our longtime Pane Caldo customers had come to expect,” said Cedicci. “We wanted to offer them the kind of fresh-from-the-farm, homemade Italian food that one would joyfully prepare after visiting a local Italian marketplace. Hence, we named it Alimentari, which means ‘marketplace’ in Italian.”

The result of their vision is Alimentari, a casual Italian osteria with a sleek contemporary attitude and a conversational vibe. It is a modern, farm-to-table Italian restaurant and gathering spot featuring casual Italian cuisine in which everything is prepared in-house from fresh, all-natural ingredients. The culinary finesse of Chefs Bonhomme and Casa is ever-present: the food is casual, yet the refinement and balance of flavors that were their calling card at Pane Caldo are still on display. Alimentari’s food is a delightful coupling of tradition and modernity. While many dishes accede to today’s penchant for lighter, healthier recipes, there are signature dishes, such as the perfectly prepared risotti and pastas, which are hearty enough to satisfy aficionados who seek out authentic Italian fare for its comforting robustness.

The contemporary interior design is intended to be easy-going and stylish in keeping with the hip, laid-back character of the neighborhood. The room features warm, light-toned woods with burgundy colored decorative accents. The sleek butcher-block teakwood tables are solid and the wooden studio chairs and stools are very comfortable. The large bar area is as appropriate for dining as it is for enjoying selections from the well-conceived, mainly Italian wine list. In the front, there is a cozy semi-private dining nook that is excellent for groups of 8-16 people.

The menu, which evolves with the seasons, uses only the freshest ingredients grown in gardens and local farms across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. The meals are entirely farm-raised and grass fed. All of the dishes have been designed to be shareable. The small, Neapolitan-style pizzas (pizzetti) are baked in a wood burning oven and are excellent starters. All pastas are made in-house daily; customers can choose gluten-free pastas and pizza if they desire. “We’re bringing same Pane Caldo quality to Alimentari, in a beautiful setting that’s perfect for the neighborhood,” said Bonhomme. “Our food is primarily Italian but with some French influences. Our standards are very high, but our prices are very reasonable and the atmosphere is casual.”

Alimentari is also attracting the after-work crowd with a special weekday wine tasting. Beginning at 5 p.m. at the bar, guests can enjoy a sampling of Alimentari’s Italian wines ($15) paired with a selection of complimentary “benvenuti antipasti” and pizzetti.

Alimentari offers many pleasant surprises each day. In addition to the regular menu, Chefs Bonhomme and Casas showcase several daily specials. Their repertoire is extensive and the daily specials give the chefs the opportunity to showcase either traditional or modern interpretations of Italian dishes, depending on the available ingredients and their mood for the day.

For dinner, the journey begins with a varied selection of fresh antipasti. Many guests start their meal by sharing a Cured Meat Board with proscuitto speck, sopressata, salami, cornichons, mustard ($9 small/$16 large), or indulging in the generous Mix Grilled Seafood with sepia, octopus, calamari, aromatic herbs, garlic, chili, lemon ($15). Other delicious antipasti choices include the Eggplant Millefoglie, basil, tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan ($9), the Grilled Organic Lamb Sausage, roasted potatoes ($11), Buratta Cheese, roasted red peppers, arugula ($13), Roasted beets, ricotta, arugula, balsamic, extra virgin olive oil ($11), the Caprese, fresh mozzarella, seedless eggplant, basil, balsamic, extra virgin olive oil ($12), and Grilled Fresh Vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, balsamic ($10).

Farm-fresh Insalate options include the popular Grape Tomato Salad, fresh mozzarella, seedless eggplant, basil, balsamic, extra virgin olive oil ($12), the Roasted Beets, ricotta, arugula, balsamic, extra virgin olive oil ($11) and Baby Spinach Salad, goat cheese, watermelon, tarragon dressing ($8).
The Pizzetti are a light and tasty embellishment to a meal. These small, individually sized pizzas feature a thin, crispy crust and a variety of fresh toppings. The Burrata pizette features creamy mozzarella, grape tomatoes, basil ($7); diners can add Proscuitto di Parma for an additional $2. The gluten-free Farinata pizza is topped with wild mushrooms, fontina, truffle oil, and pine nuts ($7).

Alimentari’s made-in-house Pasta dishes are wonderful illustrations of the self-assurance and skill that Chefs Bonhomme and Casa bring to the kitchen. The biggest crowd-pleasers during the fall are the homemade Tortelloni filled with butternut squash, ricotta, zucchini sauce ($16). Other zesty pasta selections for the fall include Ravioli, shrimp, avocado, saffron-fennel sauce ($18); Tagliatelle, pork and beef Bolognese ($17); Penne Arrabiata, fresh mozzarella, fine herbs, spicy tomato sauce ($14); Linguini, ragu of grouper, light spicy tomato sauce ($21). The Risotto, with fresh wild mushrooms, wild herbs, and parmesan ($19) is hearty, perfectly prepared and easily shared.        
The Carne-Pesce entrées are prepared with finesse and a nod toward great traditional Italian fare. Meat lovers will enjoy the Braised Beef Short Ribs, 12 years old Aceto balsamico ($25) and the Grilled New Zealand baby lamb chops, garlic mustard-rosemary sauce reduction ($28). There is a daily fish special—Pesce Del Giorno (market price)—and the chicken entrée, Roasted organic layers of chicken, spinach, prosciutto, mozzarella, mushroom sauce ($22) is juicy and satisfying.The sumptuous made-in-house Dolci are expertly prepared. Chocolate lovers will enjoy the Chocolate Cake, Brownie, raspberry sauce ($8), and the Tiramisu with chocolate mousse ($8). The Pear Almond Tart/Apple Tart, caramel sauce ($8) and the Panna Cotta, raspberry sauce ($7) are also exquisite, somewhat lighter, choices. Diners can also top off their meal with a selection of homemade gelati or a cheese plate.

The sizeable wine list features primarily Italian wines. Many are available by the glass or quartino (small carafe). The serving staff is knowledgeable and eager to help guests choose a perfect wine selection. The beverage program also features a selection of microbrews and a full range of cocktails.

Alimentari Osteria is located at 621 W. Randolph Street in Chicago’s West Loop. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. All major cards accepted; valet parking is available. For more information about Alimentari Osteria, please visit the website, or call (312) 382-8880.

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