Gnocchi with brown butter and sage at Antico
There’s that fleeting moment during a good meal when everything hits you just right. The atmosphere, food, drink, and rhythm of conversation all coalesce in the most pleasurable way, and the world—or at least your corner of it—feels beautiful. It’s usually a fluke, triggered not so much by the quality of the restaurant as by your own personal whims, and you never know when it’s going to occur or how long it will last. (The quickest way to zap such a moment of magic is to mention it out loud.) Even after the feeling fades, your affection for the restaurant crystallizes forever. All of which is a fancy way of saying: Go to Antico. You may not have a moment like I did, but if it’s a summer evening, and you get a table on the lovely garden patio, and you’re with people you like, anything could happen.
Brad Schlieder’s café by day and trattoria by night does a lot of things right, starting with the easy vibe set by a staff that seems as happy to be there as the customers. The Bucktown storefront once housed an antiques shop and a jeweler; now the earthy space is equal parts hickory, stone, and zinc. Schlieder and his chefs, Audias Gutierrez and Peter Vanecek, longtime forces behind the overlooked A Tavola, purposely equipped Antico with minimal refrigerator space so the kitchen would produce fresh food constantly. “Everything that is legally permitted to be made in-house is made in-house,” says Schlieder. He means pasta, sausage, cheese, desserts—everything that matters. Rare is the moment that Schlieder serves a fresh tomato he didn’t grow personally. This is a restaurant focused on now.
Antico’s rotating menu flows with simple Italian standouts, things like crostini with billowy prosciutto on a layer of creamy fig butter—and a hint of salt you can taste but can’t see. Or an understated chilled tomato soup with fresh basil and a dab of semisolid mozzarella di bufala. And if any restaurant takes gnocchi as seriously as A Tavola does, this is it. Antico has experimented with chestnut flour and plans to try its hand at sweet gnocchi stuffed with prunes. Its wonderful brown butter gnocchi are so airy they would float into the ether if not for the crisp fried sage.
But it was a few bites into the short ribs that my moment materialized. Something about the amarone in which they’d been braised produced sparks with the saffron in the polenta and horseradish gremolata, just as a funny story at my table hit its climax. I rolled a sip of the mellow 2008 Nessun Dorma on my tongue . . . and that confluence, right there, is a moment. But then I swapped out the ribs for a companion’s pan-seared pork chop with braised leeks drowning in a reservoir of red wine and sage reduction, and the reverie vanished. A special of flaky pan-fried grouper in lemon-thyme vinaigrette almost rekindled the flame, and desserts were fine—particularly the lush cioccolata mousse cake and the zeppole fresh from the fryer and dusted with powdered sugar—but the moment had passed. I was back on earth.
Unfortunately, Antico’s laid-back vibe cuts both ways, as when our waitress left an unopened bottle of wine on the table for ten minutes or when the food runner accidentally flipped a crostini off the plate and then stared at it on the ground as though it had betrayed him. I guess a place that lives by the moment also dies by it. But Antico has some kind of strange magic, and my desire to recapture it only gets stronger.
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Rustic House is one of those restaurants that I’m supposed to like. Everything is in place: the menu (straight-up local American), the people involved (Jason Paskewitz and Ryan O’Donnell from Gemini Bistro), the warm space outfitted with a Rotisol French rotisserie and a wood-burning grill, even the folksy name. So why, then, do I have little inclination to return? Probably because my meals there were loud, herky-jerky affairs dictated by neglectful service and food that looked good but rarely made much of an impression. A series of antimoments, basically.
It started pleasantly, with familiar bar snacks like sticky, sweet honey-peppered bacon and marcona almonds slippery with duck fat. Both got better with each potent sip of a well-made Rustic Nail. But for every bull’s-eye appetizer, like the bold hand-rolled gnocchi and Hudson Valley foie gras in a parsley nage, there was a misfire, like a quail-egg-topped crispy pork belly, a jiggly and fat-layered square that resembled Spam. Entrées also batted .500. Wisps of shaved pecorino melted into a brawny ragout of soft hunks of veal cheek with perfectly cooked pappardelle and a pear tomato confit. Even richer was a braised lamb shoulder (from Gepperth’s Market across Halsted Street) with Moroccan couscous, cherries, and dried dates and figs intensified by a sturdy natural lamb jus. Either of those and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta, and I’d be happy. But $44 for a chalky wood-grilled New York strip? Wood-grilled oysters coated with congealed Romano cheese for $15? Or, for that matter, $10 for a badly deconstructed Whatchamacallit bar? I’ll get one for a buck at Jewel.
The sharp golden-toned dining room’s permanent fixtures include weathered barnyard walls, limestone floors, leather banquettes, and, as far as I can tell, Jason Paskewitz. On my visits, the chef never seemed to be in the kitchen. One night, he sat at the bar with friends; another, he stood at the kitchen door and stared aimlessly over the dining room, moving only to shake the hand of the Cubs announcer Bob Brenly. Maybe it was the noise, but neither Paskewitz nor O’Donnell—the latter stationed at the host stand a few feet away—noticed my table dying on the vine, waiting nearly an hour for our food.
Back in March, Paskewitz was asked to explain the difference between Gemini Bistro and Rustic House. “At Gemini you are in and out in 90 minutes or less,” he said. “This place will be a little slower.” At the time, it sounded like a promise. As it turns out, it was a warning.