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Italian So Good, Even My Nonna Approves. Riccardo’s: Chicago’s Best

I’ve had the sheer pleasure of living and eating in Chicago for two years now. Each day of my life is scheduled around food. Seriously. I am that sad person people refer to when they say “there are those who eat to live and those who live to eat.” I’m the latter. I live to chew, to taste life as much as I can, and eating is a full on sensory extravaganza. Or at least it should be. I was fortunate to be raised by genuinely amazing cooks, in particular of the Italian variety. Both of my father’s have a talent for cuisine, albeit one of them takes all day to execute a semi-annual gourmet meal. Nonetheless, they have a feel for food. Each woman has their own specialty and touch. I have a few favorites made by each. My Mom made a home-cooked dinner almost every night growing up and I can’t remember one bad meal. Somehow through all that goodness, we all still pale in comparison to my grandma.

Nonna (Italian for Grandma) or Grammy as I so affectionately call her, is the most intuitive and efficient culinary artist I’ve ever met. She’ll work all day, grab some groceries and whip up an amazing dinner with dessert in 30-45 minutes. And she loves it. Never complains. She’ll eat a meal somewhere, like it, but find a way to make it better so she loves it. Despite living in Italy for three years, traveling around Europe and living in big cities here in the States, I’ve never had a better meal than one my grandma made. And for that, we’re all screwed. I go into a new restaurant with limited hopes and expectations. I’ve had many amazing experiences with food throughout my life and I’m grateful to have found an authentic Italian spot in Riccardo’s.

I first delighted in Riccardo’s exquisite cuisine while celebrating a mutual anniversary with dear friends during their visit to the windy city. My friend is also Italian with an awesome grandmother who makes delectable sauce, so we both enter Italian restaurants with a sense of wonder. I did some searching and found Riccardo’s quaint location in East Lincoln Park, where Clark street meets Dickens. With a very small, navy awning with yellow letters, Riccardo’s unassuming facade is warm and welcoming. As soon as I entered, I transported to a different time and place. I was back where I feel a big chunk of my heart still lives, in the land of passion and pasta: Italy.

With tall ceilings, curved architecture and large paintings on the walls, Riccardo’s is cozy and bustling, seating roughly 60 people max. There’s staff of all ages, a testament to a family run institute, many of them speaking Italian, laughing with the customers and providing knowledgable, sound advice on which amazing items from their menu to try. I’ve been back 6-7 times and I still can’t get enough. I’ve taken my very selective grandmother, mother and family members, all of which ooed and ahhed at the pure bliss entering their mouths. Can’t wait to go back.

Riccardo’s is special. It’s a splurge. When we’re aiming to save we’ll elect their tasting menu. For $33 you select a 1st, 2nd and dessert course. You’re greeted with prosecco and amazingly fresh bruschetta. Their house wines are as good as anything I had in Italy and they have a wide selection should you desire something specific. On our multiple visits, our group has enjoyed veal meatballs in osso buco sauce (remember, Italians eat everything. They value quality, natural ingredients and they honor the life they’re eating.), gnocchi with wild oxtail, fried zucchini flowers with prosciutto and mozzarella, garbanzo flour crepe with wild boar sausage and fava beans, papardella with pork cheeks in chianti sauce, vitella tonnato, beef carpaccio, spaghetti carbonara, risotto with porcini mushrooms, pork tenderloin with parmesan risotto and oven potatoes, and much, much more.

My god I am salivating as I type! I must go back immediately. Truth: I cried the first time I experienced Riccardo’s. All the elements of our dining experience were so spot on, of such high quality and I really just felt nostalgic for Europe. There’s no rush when you eat. You sip wine, laugh, savor each succulent bite and moan the entire way through. Their tiramisu is as authentic as I’ve had, as good as my dear Italian friend who labored over it lovingly for one of our last meals as residents. You walk out onto Chicago’s beautiful streets, slowly sauntering off your epic meal, just as the Italians would do.

It pains me to see people choose mediocrity. Please know that Olive Garden could not be farther from authentic Italian and most American restaurants claiming to make genuine food straight from mamma’s kitchen are bullshitting us. There are certainly spots all around the country who focus on quality of ingredients and superb execution of their chosen recipes. They’re usually family run and less easy to find, but they’re there, and they’re worth every mile you drive and every penny you spend. You have one life. Eat, drink, laugh and love well. You deserve it. Give yourself the gift.

The other white meat brings some color into your life.

Until this point in time, I’ve yet to review any restaurants beyond casual dining. I’ve kept the dollar signs at one, or between one and two. Today is different. Today is special. This culinary eatery may bring you into the 3 dollar sign range, but truthfully you’ll most likely hover in $$-$$$. Don’t let that frighten you. You’re treating yourself. You deserve it. We all do. This place also brings collaboration and community into the mix. You’ll be sharing a plethora of flavorful dishes. Bite bite pass. Welcome to the world that is the Purple Pig. I’ll caution vegetarians now. This is a pork centered-place; hopefully the name tipped you off. Their focus is cheese, swine and wine; so feel free to join, drink, eat some cheese and veggie focused spreads, but if this disturbs or disgusts you in any way, don’t ruin your friends' trip, simply move on or stay home. See: Pick-Me-Up, Chicago Diner, Pequod’s, or Panes Bread Cafe. Plenty to choose from friends. :)

Back on message. I’ve had the sheer masticating pleasure of the Purple Pig 3 times now. Each visit was full of surprises and beyond spectacular food. If you’re visiting the Chicago area, TPP is a great option as it’s located right in the heart of the Loop on Michigan Avenue and East Illinois Street. Just past Michigan Ave’s breathtaking bridge across the Chicago river, after you’ve craned your neck to glance in awe at the Carbide and Carbon building, on to the historic Tribune and a quick look across to Wrigley’s dual structure facade, you’ll amble north and see the purple arch on the west side of the avenue. Early birds are probably the only chance of sitting immediately; if you’re willing to wait and enjoy the atmosphere at its most potent, then arrive around 730-8, squeeze past the tiny waiting area to the hostess, grab some wine and be patient. As always, it’s worth it.

The Purple Pig mostly consists of long, high, rectangular wood tables with fairly comfortable stools. You end up sitting right next to perfect strangers which is an excellent chance to look, hear and smell what they’re eating and emulate if you so choose. As with any restaurant experience, you’ll cut costs tremendously by not ordering alcohol, but that’s fun for no one. The high quality wine will make you less irritated by the noise and more appreciative of the flavors and scents wafting through the air. Plus it may make the company you keep seem more interesting. Just kidding of course, the company I choose to keep could not be more interesting. There’s something in sharing wine with the people you love; it imbues the occasion with even more magic and, in moderation, more memories.

Their menu is broken down into: Antipasti, Salad, Fried Items, Paninis, Cured Meats, Cheeses, Smears, A La Plancha and of course, Dulci. Being grade “A” fatties the salad portion was not even perused. Doesn’t mean it should’t be, just means I won’t be reviewing it. Let me just boldly recommend now that you go for weird. If you read it and it causes you to make a face, that means you need to face your judgments and fears and put that item in your mouth! My favorite items at the Purple Pig are the Roasted Bone Marrow with Herbs, Pigs Ear with Crispy Kale, Pickled Cherry Peppers and Fried Egg, and Pig Tails Braised in Balsamic. My argument to those thinking any of these items sound cruel is if you’re going to eat an animal, honor it, appreciate it, and don’t waste it. To those simply thinking they sound gross, give your palette a chance to mature, your tongue will not be disappointed.

To those with slightly closed minds and weak hearts, there are a slew of enticing dishes that will serve as food to your soul, comforting and satisfying. The cavalcade of choices from the Antipasti, Fried Foods and Cured Meat sections will stimulate any red-blooded American or International and leave you yearning for more. Whatever you choose, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The tapas style portions are all well-balanced, savory, not too big, not too small. If I were to recommend just one dish, at this or any food merchant in Chicago, it’d have to be the Milk Braised Pork Shoulder with Mashed Potatoes. My mouth is salivating like Pavlov’s dog just at the thought, at the split-second memory of the vision, sizzle, aroma, and pure masticating nirvana this feature provides. My Mom makes a great roast, unbelievable mashed potatoes, and perfect complimentary sauces, rues, or gravies; and this conjures up sweet memories of childhood, of pork shank in an Italian restaurant, of family dinners, and settles in my heart that wholesome, safe, healthy feeling. I love it. Please try it.

Few things in life are more pleasurable than sharing a meal with people you enjoy. When I reflect on my life to this point, I don’t reminisce about cars I’ve had, homes I’ve lived in, clothes I’ve worn or overall consumer related items. Those are all transient and meaningless. Food is sustenance. It is necessary for survival and also pivotal in the enjoyment of the beauty this planet provides. I reflect fondly on laughs and meals I’ve shared. I’ll take that with me as I approach the end of my life.

Chew on this.

Eat consciously. Eat passionately. Laugh and chew. Drink a brew. Enjoy.