Budget Beat; Coming Soon; Opening; Neighborhood Fave
“People go wild over my marinara sauce,” says Sead Habibovic, owner and chef at Toscana (4907 Oakton St., Skokie; 847-674-5446), a simple, roomy hideaway that he runs with his wife, Amra. One bite of his vegetarian napoleon (pictured here; $8.75), a lively layering of noodles, ricotta, spinach, zucchini, and breaded eggplant splashed with a deep red marinara, turns us into instant fans. Habibovic hails from Bosnia but perfected his pasta prowess at restaurants in Italy and Austria, followed by a ten-year stint as sous-chef at The Berghoff. Nearly everything offered at Toscana sneaks in under $10, so it’s fun to mix it up. Start with made-from-scratch soups such as soothing, crouton-bedecked cream of broccoli, move on to bruschetta dotted with roasted tomato and goat cheese, split a pasta or two, and have a go at the zaftig burger with sizzling cottage fries. Pizza is another possibility; the thin-crust offerings come generously dappled with such unexpected bounty as corn and salami, an egg, and artichoke hearts. Weekends bend toward Bosnia: rosemary-scented stuffed leg of lamb ($15.95) makes an appearance, and so does Habibovic’s mother’s phyllo dough stuffed with goodies like salmon, cream cheese, and leeks or a trio of savory mushrooms. Upon leaving, don’t be surprised if Sead pops out of the kitchen to say goodbye. It’s that kind of a place.
Daniel Kelly, who briefly stunned Chicagoans with the West Loop’s D. Kelly, then faded away when the restaurant closed in 2004, is back with Avenue M
(695 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 312-243-1133
). This time, he has hooked up with a team of nightlife veterans-their credits include Bacchus, Circus, and The Green Room-to open a contemporary American steak house in the former Como space. Come March, Avenue M’s dining room, two balconies, and 2,000-square-foot patio will be full of prime steaks and intricate Kelly trademarks such as a pan-seared chicken breast stuffed with Maine lobster and resting on a wild rice medley and sauce américaine (pictured here; $24).
When Alexander Cheswick, chef-owner of the new May Street Market
(1132 W. Grand Ave.; 312-421-5547
), graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep in 1992, several of his friends were Ivy League bound. He went to the Culinary Institute of America. “I was passionate about great-tasting food even then,” he says. Fourteen years later, after learning at Le Français, Tru, and various impressive-sounding spots in the Alps, Cheswick is taking the same cerebral approach as his former classmates. MSM’s border-hopping dishes include a fillet of tilapia in a zucchini jacket with artichokes, carrot noodles, and coriander sauce, on a bed of coriander seeds (pictured here; $18). A bonus: the restaurant will partner with Artisan Wine Cellars in the Merchandise Mart to offer selections at close to wine-store prices. Brilliant.
When baseball season is in full swing, it’s easy to remember to eat at cozy Franco’s Ristorante
(300 W. 31st St.; 312-225-9566
), just a few blocks north of U.S. Cellular Field. But the homey cooking is as reliable-and the hospitality as warm-whether the Sox are playing or not. Minestrone looks mild mannered but surprises with a rich, hammy broth and peppery kick. Penne in spicy pesto with capers, basil, and prosciutto (pictured here; $10) is just one of many deeply satisfying pastas; chops, roasted salmon, and steak al forno are among the other appealing choices.