PICCOLO SOGNO is the “little dream” of Tony Priolo (former executive chef at Coco Pazzo) and front-of-the-house man Ciro Longobardo (formerly of Coco Pazzo Cafe). Their dreamscape is the modernized old Thyme/Timo space, where the hidden patio remains the main draw; the new owners added an awning that encloses part of it, so the lovely space can be heated and used for much of winter. The place is hopping, inside and out, although on my visits the subpar service outside was more crawling and stumbling. Lovelies in trendy dresses seemed to be waiting for the right guy to show up at the bar—presumably whoever’s driving the Maserati, the Bentley, or the Aston Martin parked in the adjacent lot.
It’s easy to start with a perfect negroni or an odd (but successful) Italian margarita made with tequila and limoncello while digging into the basket of house-baked rosemary focaccia, fennel breadsticks, and dense whole wheat bread. But how to approach the menu? Should I order a thin-crusted chewy pizza from the wood-fired oven—say, that beaut with mozzarella, cremini mushrooms, rosemary, and truffle oil—for the whole table? For myself? Or maybe an antipasti platter from that seductive display we passed on the way to our table? (It’s got tempting prosciutto di Parma next to mounds of well-seasoned cannellini beans, mixed colored beets, roasted asparagus and squash, and more.) A shared assortment from that platter is awfully satisfying. But then, where will I find room for fiori di zucca, crisp fried zucchini flowers stuffed with Fontina and tomato, or a plate of griglia mista, smoky wood-grilled calamari, shrimp, and octopus seasoned with a lemon wedge? Repeat visits are in order.
Green and white ribbon noodles with rich veal ragù is fine, but I prefer the bolo-gnese-style lasagna, green sheets layered with béchamel (not ricotta) and classic meat ragù. My companions had mixed feelings about the spinach and ricotta gnocchi with lots of sliced cremini mushrooms and fresh herbs. One found the sheer dimensions of the meatball-size things off-putting, while another quickly polished off the bowl. Everybody agreed, however, on the excellence of the 2004 Sandrone Nebbiolo from Piedmont ($68).
The best entrées come from the wood-fired oven, a remnant of Thyme. Roman-style pork, boned, rolled, and roasted to crackly-skinned perfection, reminded me of suckling pig with its juicy interior. The side of delicious little rosemary-roasted potatoes is irresistible. And our waiter expertly filleted tableside the whole roasted branzino crusted with Sicilian sea salt and finished with citrus-caper-fennel-infused Ligurian olive oil. The only downside was the stringy, hard accompanying braised fennel. A pair of diminutive rosemary-marinated lamb T-bones fared almost as well, served with rapini and toasted fregola, a Sardinian semolina pasta similar to couscous. If veal milanese is a special, grab it—you’ll love the sprawling pounded and breaded chop served with baby arugula, mixed heirloom tomatoes, and fresh lemon oil.
A thick slice of baked pineapple with vanilla and coconut gelati stuck with a crisp pineapple chip brings a tropical twist to an Italian dessert, while a silky saffron and honey panna cotta with mixed berries and caramel sauce was smoothness itself. Then again, you might just want a crunchy almond raisin and chocolate hazelnut biscotto to nibble with your grappa and coffee. That should help you remember this little dream the next morning.
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“What’s your favorite restaurant?” That’s every dining critic’s least favorite question. It’s impossible to answer and we hear it over and over, from cocktail party chatterers, well-meaning friends, physicians inserting uncomfortable instruments. So I’ll answer. I favor midlevel restaurants where chefs’ skills—not the scene—are the draw. PERENNIAL, inside Lincoln Park’s new Park View Hotel, with wraparound windows and a pillowy-ceilinged dining room, is the rare gem that succeeds at both.
Giuseppe Tentori, the executive chef who also runs the show at Boka and Landmark and won a best new chef award from Food & Wine magazine in 2008, teams up at Perennial with chef de cuisine Ryan Poli. Remember Poli? He’s the talented young chef who won raves at the now closed Butter. So I wasn’t surprised by the fine smoked sturgeon appetizer accompanied by sweet onion confit and a delicious fingerling potato salad with lemon crème fraîche. Ditto the panko-and-mustard-coated veal breast browned to a crispy top, served over a vanilla-touched turnip purée, butter-cooked blanched onions, and young carrots. But my favorite starter is the raw surf and turf, a partitioned tray holding a line of hamachi sashimi topped with frisée, orange segments, a dab of miso paste, and a jalapeño-celery jelly, neighbored by strip loin carpaccio topped with manchego cheese, arugula, pickled red onions, capers, and chive oil. A 2007 California Incognito viognier ($40) melded beautifully with all.
Somehow, lowly pork belly is the height of fashion these days, and Perennial does it right. A meaty and smoky slab of braised and grilled Berkshire pork belly gets blessed with succotash and roasted corn spoon bread on thickened corn reduction. A good lighter option is the grilled black kingfish topped by a big shrimp in mussel coconut broth with bok choy and shiitake mushrooms. After my major steak binge last month, beef was the last thing I wanted—but damned if these guys don’t grill a beautifully seasoned and smoky flat-iron steak. Couldn’t resist it, especially because it was served with cremini and oyster mushrooms sautéed with thyme, melted leeks soothed with mascarpone, and black pepper–injected bordelaise.
The desserts, however, stymied me. Confronting an elaborately deconstructed array of chocolate crémeux (light ganache made with crème anglaise) dotted with half spheres of salted chocolate and olive oil–seasoned toasted bread morsels surrounded by ground-up chocolate cookies, I thought I was in Alinea territory. Then the waiter commented that it was based on a traditional Spanish dessert. Not in any Spain I’ve ever been in. This is closer to avant-garde Spanish food: fussy but good. And, while appealing, so much rum was used in the simple rum cake with caramelized sliced bananas and vanilla rum ice cream that the waiter should probably have cut me off after two orders.
PICCOLO SOGNO 464 N. Halsted St.; 312-421-0077 Model Meal Griglia mista, bolognese lasagna, Roman-style roasted pork, saffron and honey panna cotta Tip The appetizer portions of pastas are only a buck or two less, so get the full order and take some home if you don’t finish. Hours Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner nightly Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $35 to $45
PERENNIAL 1800 N. Lincoln Ave.; 312-981-7070 Model Meal Raw surf and turf, pork belly with succotash, rum cake Tip For good value, look to the section of the wine list that offers $40 options. Hours Dinner nightly; brunch Saturday-Sunday Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $35 to $45
Photograph: Chris Lake