Cibo Matto is a pain in the neck. I’m forever craning straight up at Todd Murphy’s sexy oval ceiling fresco—a droll computer-designed takeoff on Old Master paintings—and over to the complex reflective stainless-steel hood above the open kitchen. The Wit Hotel’s smart new Italian restaurant was designed by The Johnson Studio, the folks behind Tru, and the room is a knockout.
Our waitress brings my attention back to the lovely ambrosia maple table with a precise explanation of the food, beginning with an amuse of little crisp cod brandade balls on red pepper aïoli. If I owned a restaurant, I’d hire her, especially if the economy were such that I could offer Cibo Matto’s specials without eliciting sighs of regret. (“Now I do have a pasta that’s not on the menu. It’s a little decadent. . . . It’s a white truffle risotto for a mere $70. We have shaved truffles we can add to anything you like for an additional $65.” Alas, we decline.)
Cibo Matto means “crazy food” and it’s crazy good. The chef, Todd Stein, previously worked in a solid contemporary American style at MK and at David Burke’s in Las Vegas; now he’s doing brightly flavored regional Italian food that doesn’t seem at all crazy. His appetizer list yields creamy burrata cheese under wild arugula and frisée with sweet-tart onion marmalata and a crisp strip of applewood-smoked bacon. And his daily selection of three house-cured salumi shows he’s paying attention to trends. If you are lucky, among the choices will be air-cured braesola scented with paprika and prosciutto bianco—pure cured ham fat. Every bit as decadent as truffles.
The pasta? Trust Mr. Stein. His squid ink spaghetti alla chitarra (guitar cut) with lump crab delivers a jolt of sliced serrano chiles along with deep-sea flavor, and his al dente bucatini carbonara is magical—enriched with Pecorino Romano, lots of cubed pancetta, and topped with a duck egg to stir in. Your table should share an order of saffron risotto, given its own oceanic aroma from uni butter and a crown of delicate calamari and dollops of parsley pesto. A light 2007 Marco Donati Pinot Nero ($45) from the 2,000-bottle wine vault matches the vibe of the food and the setting.
Most of the entrées keep adventurous Italian flavors rolling in. A thick slab of deeply flavored short ribs braised in red wine comes with ricotta creamed spinach—a wonderful way to upgrade creamed spinach. Grilled veal tenderloin sounds more obligatory than inspired, but the dish delivers savory ceci beans and braised chard enlivened with duck prosciutto and sherry vinegar. Even a humble roasted Lake Superior whitefish gets adorned with nutty fregola (a Sardinian toasted pasta similar to couscous), fried parsnips, and creamed red kuri squash. A pity our fish had been oversalted.
Tina Blanco, Cibo Matto’s talented pastry chef, offers scrumptious desserts, such as a wonderful pear-walnut crostata with Gorgonzola and caramelized walnuts. Or, if you prefer more savory, ask to see the big glass-enclosed case that holds the salumi: It’s also got rare Italian cheeses like pungent Robiola Langhe, served with house-made gooseberry, green tomato, and grape jams. Either way, you’ll leave happy.
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Pelago Ristorante is another oddly timed upscale Italian restaurant in a hotel—the Raffaello in the Gold Coast—but it’s everything Cibo Matto is not. The service is slapdash, the menu confusing, and the cooking hit-or-miss. It’s a shame, because I love the way the intimate aqua-accented white-walled space is broken up into snug niches decked with damask bench banquettes and a central mother-of-pearl-clad gas fireplace.
But what’s the point of white napery and heavy tableware when bumbling servers do things like pour an entire bottle of 2006 Sardinian red Isola dei Nuraghi ($48) into four overflowing glasses right off the bat? And why bother to get top-notch ingredients only to bury them in a menu with no categories? Appetizers run into pastas, which continue onto the next page into main courses. Careful, or you might order a $20 pasta for an appetizer and still be eating it when your entrée hits the table.
The chef, Mauro Mafrici, a native of Trieste, knows his Italian idiom, but his creations are all over the place. The best starters are cold roasted pork loin salad with cannellini beans and tomatoes and pasta e fagioli soup with cavatelli and borlotti beans that includes the surprising addition of mussels: a risk that pays off. But so many of the offerings were woefully underseasoned, such as a pallid grilled quail with roasted fennel and radicchio salad.
House-made pastas are Mafrici’s true strength. Potato gnocchi with venison ragù and fried sage leaves proved hearty and delicious. Tonnarelli—square-cut spaghetti—with eggplant, tomato sauce, and mozzarella also charmed, though I couldn’t make sense of the long strips of eggplant skin curving around the plate. They were cooked but tough—like eating eggplant trimmings. More to my liking was the malloreddus, Sardinian grooved flour dumplings with sausage ragù.
Monkfish osso buco was my favorite seafood entrée, a slab of meaty fish on the bone served over good saffron risotto with carrots sautéed in Marsala wine. The halibut—our waiter tentatively said it was broiled—was a conundrum. Served with sage and red wine sauce on dense mashed potatoes and ratatouille-like chopped roasted vegetables, it was dry the first time, fine the second, and undersalted both times. It’s as if Mafrici is catering to a Gold Coast clientele on low-sodium diets. (Maybe he is.) The most striking meat offering, the roasted rolled pork loin wrapped around rare seared duck breast with a layer of fresh marjoram and a zesty caponata, was delicious over Swiss chard but came with the same mashed potatoes as the halibut.
At Pelago, even the nice touches somehow get botched. Before our desserts, a server brought a glass-domed plate of piccola pasticceria: a one-bite lemon meringue tart and three more sweets. Cute but premature. As we were finishing them, out came our cheeses and desserts. Mr. Mafrici himself described the fine Italian cheeses, including a lovely truffle-flavored Sottocenere from Veneto. The frollino, a shortbread cookie ring filled with mascarpone and bananas, served with blueberry sorbet, was a charming reminder that Pelago has style and potential. Now it just needs a heavy dose of professionalism.
The Wit Hotel, 201 N. State St.; 312-239-9500
MODEL MEAL Burrata cheese salad, bucatini, short ribs, pear-walnut crostata
TIP Book a spot at the 14-seat chef’s table in front of CM’s kitchen.
HOURS Lunch Tuesday to Friday; dinner nightly
TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) Lunch $18 to $20; dinner $50 to $60
Raffaello Hotel, 201 E. Delaware Pl.; 312-280-0700
MODEL MEAL Cold pork loin salad, gnocchi with venison ragù, monkfish osso buco, cheese plate
TIP Ease the high tab by sharing the $18 pasta tasting.
HOURS Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily
TAB (without wine, tax, or tip) Lunch $25; dinner $50 to $60
Photograph: Anna Knott