An idyllic childhood memory inspired a Wicker Park restaurant 20 years in the making.
Published Aug. 28, 2019, at 2:45 p.m.
Text by Anthony Todd
Talking about food with an Italian is always fun, but talking about pasta with an Italian in the food business is its own kind of joy. Just spend a few minutes with Dario Monni, the owner of Wicker Park newcomer Tortello, and he’ll describe his Venetian upbringing so vividly you’ll swear you were there — or, at the very least, in the kitchen.
“I grew up with the smell of coffee and sauce, and this vision of a beautiful egg crashing into a mound of white flour,” Monni says. “That’s a vision I can’t forget.”
Food is in Monni’s blood for reasons that transcend nationality: His mother’s family owned a gourmet food shop catering to “the rich of Venice,” and his father’s family, with whom he spent summers in Sardinia, worked as shepherds and butchers.
“I grew up eating this amazing fresh cheese, drinking still-warm milk,” Monni says.
And always, always there was fresh pasta. That inspired Monni to open Tortello, his café and store devoted to making the most perfect fresh pasta in Chicago.
In the intervening two decades, Monni did time in major food capitals like London, New York, and Dubai, but he just happened to fall in love with — and eventually marry — a woman from Chicago. When he moved here three and a half years ago, he saw an opportunity to make his mark by bringing simple, traditionally-made fresh pasta to a city that doesn’t have much of it around. You can get it at Eataly or Monteverde, at a few small markets, and occasionally at Whole Foods, but it’s not a staple the way it is in Italy.
“I love the way they do groceries in Europe. When you go to Europe, you go to the butcher shop, the bread shop, the pasta shop — I love that,” he says. “Why can’t we do that in Chicago?”
Tortello offers a variety of fresh pastas, along with homemade sauces and Italian ingredients like wine, olive oil from Sardinia, and vinegar from Modena. To help craft his pasta and sauce recipes, Monni brought on chef Duncan Biddulph of Lula and Rootstock to run the kitchen and flew a pasta expert — a literal 65-year-old nonna from Puglia — to the U.S. for a month to train his staff. He even spent months working with a local farmer, varying the diet of their chickens so that the color of the egg yolks would match that vivid childhood memory. Eventually, adding paprika and marigold powder to the feed resulted in the perfect, orange-red color.
Tortello’s fresh pasta is about $9 a pound, and the shop is already selling out of shapes daily. While the weather is still warm, customers can take fresh herbs from the planters outside to pair them with their pasta. The spot does serve eat-in options (without reservations), but Monni’s passion is educating people about how to use fresh pasta in their own kitchens. He’s eager to talk to guests, helping them pair their meal with the perfect pasta.
“Every pasta shape matches with a sauce,” Monni says.
If you want to dine in, get ready for a wait, especially on the weekends — Tortello is pretty popular. The crowds delight Monni endlessly.
“We are friendly, we love kids, we love family,” he says. “Sometimes we have a line out the door, but I open a bottle of prosecco and everyone is happy.”