Reviews: A Toda Madre and RPM Italian

OF PEPPERS AND PASTA: A standout you’ve never heard of, a big-name spot that’s better than you think, and the danger of first impressions

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RPM Italian

RPM Italian
RPM Italian

 

The glittering celebrity bait known as RPM Italian is already famous because of its big-name owners: reality show royalty Bill and Giuliana Rancic and restaurant royalty Jerrod, R.J., and Molly Melman. This was supposed to be the spot that finally graduated Rich Melman’s offspring into the realm of “serious” restaurateurs rather than hosts of Hub 51 and Paris Club—Lettuce Entertain You’s stationary party buses that emphasize the entertaining more than the lettuce. But scathing early reviews from local publications bummed out RPM’s party. I visited early, too, and felt the same disappointment: The giant menu, with 17 separate sections, did most everything OK and nothing particularly well. Then I did what critics never seem to bother to do anymore: I waited. And after giving the restaurant a couple of months to breathe, I returned.

Everything about the space looked the same—its striking black-and-off-white details, the weird mix of club kids and middle-aged women, an armada of UFO lights descending from the skies. But the kitchen and confident servers had adjusted in the way a good restaurant does in its infancy.

It’s no coincidence that the chef, Doug Psaltis, is a disciple of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, two notorious kitchen perfectionists. Instead of the backhanded slaps of my first visit, like a crazy-salty slow-roasted Sicilian pork arrosti, I encountered nuanced and gorgeous fare such as a Mediterranean sea bass crudo with fennel, black olives, and lemon zest. Psaltis knows his way around more than 200 pasta variations and takes some interesting chances, as in an intense sweet pea risotto with acquerello rice sprinkled with golden pea shoots and an even-more-intense duck agnolotti with Brussels sprouts and Mission figs in brown butter sauce.

THE SKINNY

RPM ITALIAN 52 W. Illinois St.; 312-222-1888
FYI Opposite of a nightcap: the affogato float with vanilla gelato and La Colombe Pure Black coffee.
TAB $20 to $30
HOURS Dinner nightly

Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.

But the biggest shock may have been RPM’s killer steak, the luscious 20-ounce Painted Hills bone-in rib eye with a perfect caramelized lid. And of course RPM gets in on the cicchetti trend with irresistible nibbles like the chicken liver crostini with pancetta and balsamic and the pasta trombas—basically chips of orecchiette that have been boiled, dehydrated, fried, and sprinkled with Parmesan. They go perfectly with my new favorite cocktail, Paul McGee’s wondrous Torino fizz, a gin-based procession of tart, sweet, and dry. If only the lackluster desserts held half as much intrigue.

RPM is not perfect, but it’s not suspended in the arrested development of the Melmans’ previous efforts. It is growing. And it serves as an important reminder not to pass judgment so quickly that I forget restaurants are living, breathing things that change and, when the stars align, improve.

 

Photograph: Anna Knott

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