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If the proliferation of pasta in this town is any indication, every restaurateur in Chicago thinks he can do Italian. Meet two smart newcomers who really can.

Hungry for Italian? In Chicago, no problema. Ristoranti and trattorie are like parking meters: they’re everywhere you look, and they’re all basically the same. But two new spots with appealing, fusilli-like twists should rank high on your list when you long for a casual pasta or simply cooked savory meat with a side of polenta.

 
Sautéed scallops with a corn-and-pea ragoût topped with a scallion salad in sherry vinaigrette

Riccardo Trattoria is the pride and joy of Riccardo Michi, formerly chef at Bice (in New York and Chicago), the upscale restaurant enterprise his family founded in Milan. As if that were not enough of a pedigree, Michi’s mother established Al Girarrosto, a Tuscan ristorante in Milan recognized by Le Cordon Bleu. Riccardo, tucked into the old Via Emilia space, next door to the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co., exudes a sense of Italy. True Tuscan accents fill the room: a gorgeously framed mirror, dark wood tables and chairs, and recessed lighting. Amid all that, a distinctively American series of Audubon prints are odd-but they only add to the charm. My appetite, however, went strictly Italian when I passed by the antipasto table, and then was quickly gratified by a free round of bruschetta that beat the dickens out of what I had recently had at Il Mulino.

The antipasti lived up to their promise with tasty grilled vegetables, caramelized shallots, spicy goat cheese drizzled in olive oil, and more. Still, I found room for à la carte appetizers such as grilled tomino cheese smothering baked artichokes, roasted peppers, and grilled zucchini and eggplant. Fried calamari are a trattoria cliché, but a platter heading to the next table got my attention-and, thanks to expert frying and a lively puttanesca sauce, they rose above the ordinary. Likewise, the beef carpaccio with arugula was basic but impeccable.

Michi’s freshly made pastas are a must. If you wisely opt to share two or three before the entrées, the staff will split them up. Best of the best: orecchiette with wild boar sausage, rapini, and sun-dried tomatoes with pecorino cheese; veal ravioli tossed with creamy meat sauce and porcini mushrooms; gnocchi with prosciutto and Fontina cheese in a pink tomato sauce; and exemplary fettuccine bolognese. Of course, any of these makes a fine entrée with a glass of tangy Favia Moliss Barbera d’Asti ($28) from a well-priced Italian wine selection.

On the Timo table (above) a risotto of grilled sausage and smoked mozzarella; and (on bottom) butternut squash raviolo draped with duck, confit and snipped chives

 

If you don’t pace yourself with the pasta, you won’t be able to enjoy entrées such as disks of bacon-wrapped prawns and sea scallops in a lobster bisque sauce with asparagus and wonderful rosemary-scented lentils. That goes double for the rich take on veal scaloppine, here baked with Fontina in a white wine and artichoke sauce. The veal ricotta meat loaf with Tuscan fries is a beloved recipe straight from Michi’s mother. I can respect that, but the generous slab would be seriously bland without the overlay of terrific porcini cream sauce well stocked with the mushrooms. (The appetizer of polpettine arrabbiata, juicy little veal ricotta meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, uses the same basic recipe to better effect.) Porcini mushrooms also work wonders with the Chianti sauce for braised beef short ribs with grilled polenta. And on my first visit to Riccardo, I enjoyed a classic rendition of tripe Florentine, thin strips of tender braised honeycomb tripe in a sauce of tomatoes with diced onions, celery, carrots, garlic, white wine, and basil-then, on my next visit, it was off the menu. (It’s still available by request for diners who dare to order it.)

Panna cotta with passion fruit coulis is everything it should be, right up there alongside the ricotta cheesecake with pine nuts and raisins. From a short list of digestini, the Amaro Meletti bitters has a beguiling herbal flavor that maybe, like the tripe, takes some getting used to, but it appropriately caps off an authentic Italian dinner in Lincoln Park.

Timo in River West is John Bub­ala’s retake on his contemporary Thyme-same word (in Italian), new direction. The setting hasn’t changed much: a few more butcher-papered tables instead of banquettes, and wildly colored Chihulyesque light fixtures brought in a year or so before the morph. All in all, the place remains more upscale than his laid-back Thyme Cafe in Wicker Park, and the foliage-encrusted patio remains one of the city’s loveliest outdoor dining spots.

Bubala and his chef de cuisine, Armando Cabrera, are talented in Italian cuisine, if not idiom. Curious about the menu, we asked our Italian-accented waiter why the entrées were oddly headed “Baccala e Carne e Farina,” considering “baccala” means salt cod. “I told Bubala that,” the waiter replied, “and he said that for a lot of people it’s just fish in general. It’s not, but he doesn’t listen to an Italian. He wants to do it his way.” OK; his way is damn good. And, by the way, Bubala still makes those warm sweet-salty whole-wheat rolls, although now he serves them with balsamic-drizzled olive oil.

The best way to begin a Timo meal, indoors or out, is with the wood-grilled romaine jazzed by black olives, caper berries, and white anchovies in purple basil dressing. The two risotto appetizers-one with smoked mozzarella, asparagus, and sausage and another with grilled pears, leeks, peas, arugula, and Gorgonzola-are both sumptuous. Spit-roasted meats remain a Bubala strength, a natural for Italian dishes, beginning with an appetizer portion of orecchiette pasta tossed with spit-roasted rabbit and mushrooms flavored with bacon, lavender, and vanilla. A daily ravioli of butternut squash and mascarpone with corn sauce was a revelation-delightful, if a little weird.

I love Bubala’s skill with starches and vegetables, like when he laces polenta with pimientos to go along with perfectly sautéed medium rare duck breast garnished with fennel confit and green olives finished with a little truffle honey. Too bad by the time the duck reached me on the patio it was barely warm. And earthy farro (an ancient grain also called spelt) invigorated with chopped black olives complements lightly grilled Alaskan salmon with roasted tomato coulis.

Irresistible meats turn on the spit in the open kitchen: pork, rabbit, chicken, and leg of lamb. By the time we placed our order on one visit, the server warned, there was only one serving of pork left. A companion, having heard me rave about it, immediately called dibs. Some friend. Lucky for us both, he shared the bounty with me, and that little piggy delivered: flavor-packed, juicy, tender meat perfectly matched with balsamic-braised onions, roasted potatoes, and amazingly good ramp pesto-a new one for me. The moist spit-roasted chicken breast flavored with lemon and garlic scored another win, while the side of whipped potatoes and porcini sauce were yummy in their own right. Corn and scallops, while not particularly Italian, are a time-honored match, and the combo comes through again, here with peas and lemon nage, made with white wine, lemon, and butter. If you’ve passed on pasta as an appetizer, consider the cavatelli with plump shrimp, peas, and mushrooms enriched with melting goat cheese.

Once upon a Thyme, I would have been quick to consider other interesting bottles on the list-from Arizona to Australia-but in keeping with the new direction of Timo’s food, I stuck with Italian selections and found a delightfully spicy 2003 Italian Furlan Primitivo ($40). But I played the field with the dessert offerings, figuring correctly that I couldn’t go wrong with the delicate banana crêpes with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream, the rich chocolate gâteau with Venezuelan chocolate nut chips and coffee ice cream, the pineapple cake with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream, or the trio of Grand Marnier, bitter chocolate, and hazelnut crèmes brûlées. Clearly, John Bubala made a good choice, morphing Thyme into Timo, and he’s still cooking with gusto-no matter the name.

RICCARDO TRATTORIA-2119 North Clark Street. Appetizers $6 to $16; entrées $12 to $24; desserts $6. Dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Reservations: 773-549-0038.

TIMO-464 North Halsted Street. Appetizers $7 to $12; entrées $10 to $25; desserts $6 to $9. Dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Reservations: 312-226-4300.

Photography: Jeff Kauck

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