By nearly all accounts, the original incarnation of IL COVO was a bust. Too upscale for a neighborhood hangout, too casual for a special occasion; uneven food, dispirited service. But Carol Johnson and Domenico Fronteddu, the new managing partners of Bucktown’s year-old spot, have turned it around. They’ve set the tables with black triangular napkins on white tablecloths, adding texture to the striking room’s dark walnut flooring and exposed brick.
Bigger changes, however, are afoot in the kitchen. In a town rife with northern Italian and red sauce joints, Il Covo’s new chefs (who are also partners), Nino Coronas and Giovanni Carzedda, look to their native Sardinia for inspiration. Nods to Bologna, Roma, and Genoa dot the menu, but it was the intense Sardinian flavors that grabbed my attention. Phoenician in heritage, Sardinia was long isolated from the rest of Italy, so its cuisine evolved independently, with its own aggressive flavors.
Even the grilled vegetables are potent at Il Covo. I loved the shareable antipasto of grilled radicchio, Belgian endive, zucchini, and asparagus served with a crusty disk of grilled smoked scamorza cheese. Grilled zucchini also steals the show under a blanket of melting goat cheese in a prudent amount of spicy arrabbiata sauce (involtini di zucchine caprino). There’s no grilling involved, but Coronas and Carzedda give a shot of life to the obligatory mussels-in-broth appetizer, with its plump bivalves sautéed in an exceptional tomato and white-wine broth with garlic and crushed red pepper.
Spaghetti sautéed with garlic, white wine, and tomato concassé and ringed with tender clams is a treat, but add grated bottarga—salt-cured mullet roe—and the sauce assumes a Sardinian force. Equally true to the island are house-made gnocchetti sautéed with lamb tenderloin in white wine with shallots and garlic, finished in a light tomato sauce and topped with pecorino sardo. (Sardinians call it “fiore sardo.”) Gnocchetti is a cousin of gnocchi but here the tiny twists are made the Sardinian way—from semolina. Throw in the savory lamb chunks and well-seasoned light sauce and you think you are in the home of a long-lost Sardinian relative. And lest you forget Il Covo’s focus, our waiter recommended a medium red 2003 Contini Nieddera ($50) . . . from Sardinia.
A paillard of Sardinian-style chicken breast rolled with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and sage is baked and finished in a vermentino wine sauce. Soft cheese oozes out when you cut into the delicious rolls of moist chicken. When cooked medium rare, skewered grilled lamb loin marinated in fresh herbs and red wine was a little gamy—just the way I like it. Wild salmon pops up twice on the menu. The waiter recommended it sautéed with garlic in white wine sauce: well seasoned and juicy, and the sauce appealingly sharp. On another visit, I tried the marinated and grilled salmon, and it turned up scorched on one side.
It should be mandatory to end with sevada, a traditional Sardinian dessert of sweet egg dough filled with unsalted fresh pecorino and lemon zest, lightly fried—almost a blintz—and heavily drizzled with honey. Homey and appealing, just like Il Covo.
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A new trattoria doing real home cooking? Loosen my belt and I’m there. And, at ANTEPRIMA, owner Marty Fosse usually hits the rustic, regional home cooking bull’s-eye. Fosse, a former partner of Carlucci restaurants, works the room in his laid-back way, greeting and schmoozing, sometimes even boning the fish if necessary. He typifies the casual vibe of this charming, if noisy, Andersonville storefront outfitted with wood tables, beveled mirrors, and stained glass.
The name refers to the antipasti offerings that make up half the menu. Seven of them are displayed near the bar, and all of them appear on a great combo platter (they can also be ordered individually). The roasted peppers with Parmesan and herbs, and the sweet-and-sour roasted cipolline with prosciutto were my favorites—until I tasted the outstanding Sicilian caponata eggplant relish with pine nuts.
The first time I tried the veal meatball appetizer, I was disappointed in the flavor and the portion size (the handful of meatballs looked lonely rolling around the oval dish). On the next visit, however, the morsels, laced with pine nuts and raisins in a light saffron-tomato sauce, filled the plate and satisfied my palate. So, too, the grilled octopus. It was somewhere between rubbery and mealy the first time, then perfect the next time in the company of thinly sliced potatoes flavored with red onion and chilies in a parsley-lemon–olive oil dressing.
Anteprima’s pastas break free of the ordinary. Tagliatelle with duck ragù and with prosciutto ragù are both tiptop. Or you might get hooked on pasta packets stuffed with herb ricotta and chard in asparagus butter sauce, only to switch your allegiance on your next visit to tender ravioli spinach pasta filled with porcini and other mushrooms in mushroom cream with pine nuts. And from the well-priced all-Italian list, a 2005 Produttori del Barbaresco Nebbiolo from Piemonte ($36) cozies right up to the pastas and hangs around for the red meat.
I was disappointed in how bland the special of braised-on-the-bone goat leg served with giant Greek-style beans was—not my usual experience with goat. Much better were the baby grilled lamb loin chops scottaditi with sweet garlic confit over grilled eggplant. The wood-grilled whole fish of the day is worth a look, especially when it’s dorade stuffed with lemon and rosemary and served with artichokes and fennel in tomato broth. (If only Fosse could teach his servers to bone fish like he does.)
A cherry cinnamon crostata almost made me forget my annoyance with the no-reservation policy. And I know this is Andersonville and all, but Anteprima might want to look into getting a valet. There are no parking spaces left around here.
IL COVO 2152 N. Damen Ave.; 773-862-5555 A Model meal Involtini di zucchine e caprino; gnocchetti sardi; sevada Tip Late-night dining
in upstairs lounge Friday and Saturday till 3 a.m. Hours Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner nightly. Tab (Dinner per person, without wine, tax,
or tip), $30 to $40.
ANTEPRIMA 5316 N. Clark St.; 773-506-9990 A Model meal Antipasto platter, tagliatelle; lamb chops scottaditi; cherry cinnamon crostata Tip Start with a Venetian lemonade (house-made limoncello, bitters, sugar cube, prosecco). Hours Dinner nightly. Tab (Dinner per person, without wine, tax, or tip), $30 to $35.
Photograph: Tyllie Barbosa