Back when I was just visiting Chicago and not a resident, I loved going to those big River North restaurants whenever I had a generous expense account or, better yet, whenever someone else did. I loved splurging on the veal chop, sipping the coldest martini, and never feeling underdressed because the conventioneers at the next table were still wearing their name tag lanyards. I loved the way these restaurants, purportedly French or Mexican, always had more than a little steakhouse in their DNA, tricking out their menus with shrimp cocktail and Caesar salad. More than anything, I loved their advocacy of the pleasure principle: their stupid-good wine lists, their dessert trolleys, their joyful, sybaritic spirit of what-the-hell-ism.

As fun as they are, I often hesitate to recommend big-production restaurants, as they can be wildly inconsistent and beyond-the-pale expensive. Both are true of Ummo, a new Italian spot right in the thick of things on Hubbard Street. Yet from my two visits, I have two key takeaways: Good eating happens if you order well, and though much of the menu is designed to drive your bill into Kirkland & Ellis client–entertaining territory, you can find a way through it that brings the price down to a mere date-night splurge.

Ummo is the second restaurant from Somos Hospitality, the group that brought Carlos Gaytán and his modern Mexican cooking back to Chicago at Tzuco. Now they’ve partnered with another name chef, Jose Sosa, late of Gibsons Italia, where a gold extruder was famously used to make the pasta. Sosa may have left that fancy equipment behind, but his pastas are the sweet spot at a restaurant that wears its Italian personality more like a sharply tailored suit than a lived-in identity. The broad menu involves a lot of shareable appetizers lavished with delicious butterfat, entrées portioned for leftovers, and vegetable side dishes that are mini-events in themselves.

Jose Sosa
Jose Sosa

Follow the zigzags of the herringbone parquet flooring through the 100-seat dining room to the far back, where you’ll espy Sosa directing a scrum of cooks and servers near a copper-topped service counter fronting the kitchen. The room, decorated in a muted palette of grays and browns, gets pops of red from framed jazz posters along the wall. It’s cannily designed to read as both swank and unstuffy, like a midcentury modern bachelor pad.

Appetizers, such as pillowy gnocco fritto with mortadella, taste more like cocktail-hour bar bites than Italian primi — an observation, not a complaint. Burrata from Puglia arrives in a dramatic scalloped porcelain bowl under a cap of fanned avocado. It’s rich and creamy meets rich and creamy, but the delightful food runner (the service here is excellent) anoints it with a 10-year-old balsamic: Each dot tastes like a million grapes converging. Smear it on the bread, sip your cocktail, and melt into this easy pleasure.

That’s the vibe you want here. Eat healthy tomorrow; tonight you’re sharing mafaldine cacio e pepe — each fat, chewy, ruffled noodle bathed in the creamiest, butteriest, most bowl-lickable sauce of pecorino cheese and fine, tingly black pepper. Or even better, how about a showstopping risotto afloat in butter and Parmesan, dotted with chanterelles and slivered leeks, and finished with more of that balsamic? Do you want the $10 truffle supplement? Of course you do.

You’ll also want to explore Zackariah Taylor’s wine list, which makes an effort to offer affordable options with character. We loved starting a $59 bottle of 2018 Vallana Spanna (the Nebbiolo grape of Barolo fame), with the risotto and letting it carry us through the meal. While this wine doesn’t offer much in length or complexity, it has the earthy spice-market smell and the tannic grip that make this varietal so good with sumptuous food.

At this point you may think a salad could cut through the richness. Good luck. The “salad” consists of grilled, soppily dressed lettuces buried under an avalanche of shaved Parm and sided by croutons piled high with more cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and anchovies.

Diners at Ummo

Things lighten a bit with the entrées, yet I wish I could wholeheartedly recommend one of the three I tried. I can forgive the soggy skin on the flavorful roast chicken with maitake mushrooms, but I can’t forgive its bed of polenta, which had the lumpy texture of reheated instant grits. Roasted branzino with cherry tomatoes, capers, and salsa verde brings to mind a pescado a la Veracruzana, just more boring. (Farm-raised branzino has become the tilapia of expensive restaurants.) I felt peevish when confronted with a beautifully plated rib-eye steak that had been sliced without a rest, each chewy piece striped red and gray. Neither its burnt-tasting porcini crust nor its $99 price tag helped matters. What did help was the patate al forno —  an over-the-top twice-baked potato topped with truffle shavings and swimming like a capybara in a pool of Parmesan fonduta. It’s both a worthy foil for the last sips of wine and a sign that this restaurant, at heart, thinks of itself as a steakhouse.

I did not try the Dover sole ($95), the veal chop milanese ($70), or the bistecca alla Fiorentina ($150), and until a venture capitalist invites me to dinner, I probably won’t. Yet we did order and smile at pastry chef Jesús Escalera’s signature dessert, a trompe l’oeil “tomato” made with yogurt, raspberries, and lots of gelatin served with a scoop of basil sorbet. It’s fun for a bite and a snapshot, and most important, it’s a swaggering way to bring this big show of a meal to its close.

Like many of its River North neighbors, Ummo is a good place to keep in your back pocket for when you’re in the mood for easy indulgence and willing to overlook the inconsistencies that come with high-volume dining. But hey, if a rich aunt takes you out and orders that Florentine steak, let me know how it is.