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(Left) Terzo’s soothing vibe; (right) tomato flatbread with burrata, leeks, chilis, and chervil
As I headed out of the galleries up to TERZO PIANO in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing, nightmarish images from Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture video installation flashed in my mind. I figured a Death’s Door martini was the proper course of action. The artisanal Wisconsin gin did the trick: I was primed and ready for Tony Mantuano’s locavore Italian cooking in the Loop’s new cultural temple. (Yes. Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia fame and Obama favor.)
To find Terzo, you could enter the museum on Michigan Avenue and work your way over to the Modern Wing or duck into the new wing from Monroe Street. I prefer to stroll through Millennium Park and climb the Nichols Bridgeway to Terzo’s crowded doorway, where the panorama of the park, the lake, and Chicago architecture is mine to behold. Cleverly titled by combining the name of the new addition’s architect, Renzo Piano, and the Italian word for “third floor,” the restaurant boasts yet more views of the skyline and Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. I envied every diner who had snagged one of the 60 seats on the sheltered terrace, but inside the sparkling glass-curtained white room, I admired the Eames and Herman Miller furnishings—as well as the view—while sipping drinks and munching on addictive brick-cheese crisps. The seamless connection between Terzo Piano’s interior and the city that surrounds it brilliantly creates the sense of dining in an art installation. And service is so slow there’s plenty of time for contemplation.
The style at Terzo, just as at Spiaggia, is deeply Italian. But where Spiaggia imports everything from the old country, Mantuano and Meg Colleran—his chef di cucina at Terzo—rely on ingredients from the Midwest. So while you can get a terrific thin, crisp focaccia in the style of Liguria’s Recco area, it comes filled with Capriole Indiana goat cheese. The two true Italian touches are the olives and Mantuano’s private-label olive oil, both put to good use in a fluffy mound of olive oil–whipped Midwestern smoked fish accompanied by meaty red, green, and black Cerignola olives.
When I see a lunch salad with chicken breast, I always think boorring, but not Terzo’s cleverly named What Came First salad, a sophisticated array of arugula and shaved celery crowned with a boiled organic chicken egg and bordered by moist chicken breast rolled in house-made celery salt. Like a flattened Giacometti sculpture, soft-shell crab legs stick out from the fresh brioche bun of the delicious seasonal sandwich with avocado slaw and pepper bacon. The most popular entrée around the room seems to be the cute little Uno, Due, Tre burgers, a fun trio of lamb, beef, and shrimp burgers that resemble fugitives from a Joseph Cornell box.
If you serve dinner only one night a week (Thursday, when admission to the museum is free), your menu had better be a showstopper. Terzo’s is: It has evolved from a repeat of the lunch menu to an extravagant $45 three-course affair with three options in each category. As long as it’s in season, go for the fried mussel shells stuffed with chopped mussels, La Quercia prosciutto, Swiss chard, and Michigan manchego cheese. Soft, wide ravioletto packets filled with tart crescenza cheese, spring onions, and spigarello greens make a fine pasta course (also available at lunch).
From the ever-changing menu, roasted trout with herbs and little knobs of cauliflower won over my companion, while I fussed that my pair of grilled Illinois quail needed a tad more moisture. However, the soft white polenta and bright-flavored romesco bolstered the crisp birds, and a peppery 2007 Sicilian Cusumano syrah ($25) made them soar. Desserts shuffle every Thursday night; I enjoyed American artisanal cheeses and an almost traditional fried cherry pie with tart fromage blanc sorbet. Both very enjoyable, but next time—just to play it safe—I’ll linger at Brancusi’s soothing Golden Bird before venturing upstairs to Terzo Piano.
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Photography: Nathan Kirkman