A smart restaurateur knows which way the wind is blowing, when to cut his losses, and how not to mix his metaphors. Billy Lawless knew that Henri, his superpolished salon across from Millennium Park, never felt right for the location. So he replaced it with Acanto, a casual Italian trattoria that is cheaper, warmer, and more fun. It’s also more popular. Goodbye, white tablecloths and vintage parlor details. Hello, crimson tones, butcher-block tables, and wall of backlit bottles.
Acanto makes the ideal companion for the Gage, Lawless’s gastropub next door—and the redo makes sense for another reason. The chef, Chris Gawronski, is the son of a culinary professor and expert noodle maker who gave him more than 400 pasta recipes. Acanto’s ever-changing handmade options include eye-openers such as an impeccable tortellini stuffed with nutty Taleggio, walnuts, and yellowfoot mushrooms and offset by seared apple slices, mint, and pearl onions. It’s like a warm apple pie. Blunter but equally satisfying: Gawronski’s black peppercorn rigatoni with spiced lamb ragoût and grated caciocavallo (a cow’s milk cheese from southern Italy similar to provolone). These take their place among the city’s best pasta dishes.
Though nothing else at Acanto soars as high, I defy you to resist the tender artichoke hearts with caperberries, kale, and a punchy caper aïoli. And the roasted polenta layered with thin slices of cotechino sausage, an oozing quail egg, and pancetta nuggets may be 2014’s boldest new use of cornmeal mush. The pizzas won’t set the world on fire, but they’re satisfying, especially the doughy-crusty giardiniera-stoked white pie coated with house-cured finocchiona, fontina, and fennel. And I saw many people lingering over plates of well-chosen salumi and cheeses at the bar.
Entrées range from uninteresting (veal parmigiana with fried capers and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms) to terrific (a blistered rainbow trout with pickled red onions, lima beans, and olives). In between resides honest fare, such as the ultrareduced monkfish cioppino with a crayfish and nduja broth and a bounty of mussels, clams, and prawns. The one gouge? Medallions of a ridiculous 32-ounce bone-in rib eye for two, tossed with heirloom tomatoes, roasted potatoes, and arugula pesto. I should’ve asked my affable waiter for the market price up front, instead of grumbling over the check that “MP” on the menu must be “110” in Roman numerals.
Mike Page’s refreshingly simple cocktails, such as the belly-warming No. 12 (Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon, macerated sour cherry), make more of an impression than Mitsu Nozaki’s desserts, though a buttery crostata al forno topped with housemade ricotta and orange marmalade packs pure flavor into a small package.
Will Acanto stand out as a destination Italian restaurant in a city filled with them? I think so, for its pasta and drinks and for a concept accessible enough to intrigue the nonstop parade outside its door. Acanto may not be the game changer Salero is, but it’s engaged in a different game. I’m happy to play both.