Photo: Anna Knott
Through a combination of curiosity, smarts, and resources, Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia have ruled Chicago’s Italian scene from 980 North Michigan Avenue for nearly 30 years. Together, they earn seven stars from this publication. Sarah Grueneberg, the executive chef of both restaurants since 2010, and Tony Mantuano, her beatific boss and guru, are huge talents and bona fide celebrity chefs bursting with Top Chef credits, James Beard love, and customers. Yes, life is grand in Spiaggialand.
But upon glancing at their latest menus, I wondered if life was perhaps too grand. Desserts for $17? Cheese plates at $45? A $69 beer? One menu is punctuated with nudges to spend more money by adding pricey black truffles to this and that; another has been graffitied with braggy references to Food & Wine and Top Chef Texas.
Spiaggia and its deep-pocketed owner, Levy Restaurants, have always peddled Mag Mile luxury. But is the corner of Michigan and Oak now housing something so distasteful that locals can scarcely utter the words without their lips curling in disgust: tourist traps?
Before you even reach the hostess stand, Cafe Spiaggia (Spiaggia’s more affordable sibling) begins its full-court press for your dollar with a display case of Mantuano’s cookbooks. The seasonal menu further pimps the books, plus Spiaggia Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($45), Spiaggia Balsamico ($38), and both together ($75).
The corridor-y space, with its golden glow and reproductions of 15th-century murals, feels both urbane and casual. You’ll see plenty of Stella McCartney but also Gap; the Top Chef effect has added scores of twenty- and thirty-somethings to the clientele. “It’s amazing how much a TV show can open up a world to diners that may not have joined us before,” says Grueneberg.
Just as you’re pondering how to say “opportunist” in Italian, the food arrives, and it’s great. The tenderest charred octopus, perfumed with garlic, lemon, and sambuca. Tuscan kale, savoy cabbage, and San Marzano tomatoes swimming beneath wisps of Parmigiano-Reggiano in an impeccable cannellini soup. And from a climate-controlled cheese cave comes a wonderful sampling perhaps uniting a creamy Piemontese Robiola due latte, an ashy Cinerino from Campania, and a sweet Venetian Piave Vecchio, each with a different monofloral Mieli Thun honey. The honey sounds like a small detail, but the effort that went into it is staggering: Last summer, Grueneberg traveled across Italy with a third-generation nomadic beekeeper, moving the insects to pollinate artichoke flowers.
“Pasta is in our DNA,” Grueneberg says. Imagine a genetic makeup encoded with lusty bucatini, duck sausage, guanciale, San Marzanos, and Calabrian peppers. And the astounding potato gnocchi, which take two days to make before they mix with wild boar ragu (which takes three days to make), are Chicago’s best.
Larger dishes give diners what they want: hulking disks of caramelized porchetta atop amber polenta; juicy Niman Ranch beef medallions flanked by salt-roasted Yukon gold potatoes. And when the kitchen goes delicate, as in a flaky ruby trout with Tuscan beans, shallots, and Brussels sprouts, you see versatility in action. Desserts, though, are a letdown. Pass on the impenetrable Valrhona chocolate tart and stick with the doughy bombolini or housemade sorbetti, especially an intense passion fruit.
The staff is sharp, maybe too sharp. Our veteran waiter, a habitual interrupter, made it clear that the table was his. And when I asked about the trout, his boast—“It’s the most popular dish on the menu!”—was straight from Olive Garden’s handbook. Sounds like someone’s been spending too much time in the cheese cave.
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Across the hall at Spiaggia, I had yet to sip my water or take in the airy room’s Mag Mile view when the waiter offered an earful about rare Kaviari wild golden osetra caviar ($88 for seven grams). Then he was on to the Miyachiku wagyu beef ($165) and why we ought to shave those glorious Périgord truffles ($48 for four grams) on everything: the tagliolini, the duck breast, the risotto. If you’ve got the money, sure—sprinkle truffles in your purse. Either way, your meal will be delightful. And expensive.
The nuance of Spiaggia’s everchanging dishes makes those at Cafe Spiaggia seem almost blunt. A wondrous truffle-tinged raw lamb loin sandwiched with deep-fried focaccia and slices of grappa-poached pears is a miracle that stays crunchy in spite of wet Castelmagno fonduta and light despite the truffle decadence. And impeccable Maine diver scallops deliver levels of deliciousness with meaty slabs of hedgehog mushrooms, crispy pork jowl, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Grueneberg’s Italian honey trek pays dividends this time on a tremendous wood-roasted duck breast, whose crispy skin plays off a seared duck liver sparked by Mieli Thun acacia honey, grapefruit, and savoy cabbage. The dish barely needs the cotechino sausage or white polenta, but the diner’s tongue and teeth get multiple textures, flavors, and thrills.
The best way to go is Spiaggia’s revolving $95 pasta tasting, a series of dazzling six-course processions. Lately it’s been highlighted by braised-pork-filled tortelloni dumplings in a lush brodo arrayed with game hen roulade, chicken cracklings, and a 12-year-aged balsamic made by Acetaia San Giacomo, a company based in Reggio Emilia that allowed Grueneberg to assist with its fall harvest a few years back.
There’s even pasta for dessert, but the cocoa corzetti pasta fritter filled with cinnamon, dark chocolate, Tomino da Padella, and sour cherry sorbetto pales in comparison to à la carte offerings, such as an invigorating trio of chocolate, pistachio, and salted caramel gelati. While the wine list is stupefying in its depth, it’s no place to find a bargain. A lively 2008 Nino Negri Valtellina Superiore Fracia, which retails for roughly $35, drifts to $95.
One could call these restaurants shameless. But one could also argue that, forever energized with ideas and resources, they have been sprinting for decades and have never stopped tweaking their precise regional flavors. Instead of lamenting the corporate cheesiness of Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia, I celebrate the fact that both have earned their success. Yes, they’re overpriced. They’re also examples of what’s possible when creative people meet prosperous backers and have years to hone their craft. In other words, they may be tourist traps, but sometimes the tourists are right.