Red sauce. You hear the words and instantly know what they mean and how they make you feel. Warm. Sentimental. Satisfied. Twirl a few strands of spaghetti on your fork, sauce shooting in all directions like a garden sprinkler filled with marinara, and suddenly you’re a child, unconcerned with the pomp and nonsense of dining. You’re just hungry.
That’s the kind of feeling that Formento’s, an Italian American restaurant opened by B. Hospitality Co. in January, wants to evoke. How close does it come to hitting the universal yet elusive sweet spot? To find out, I first went to the place that lives in the sweet spot: Rosebud. Chicago’s craggy Dean of Red Sauce has been successfully scratching the same itch for 39 years now in Little Italy.
“We’re superbusy,” Rosebud’s host told my crew when we showed up on time for our 7 p.m. reservation on a Saturday night. “It’s going to be 30 minutes.” When you’re Rosebud, apparently you don’t need to apologize. Ten minutes later, when he squeezed us into a tight four-top near the dining room’s entrance, we felt grateful.
The wood-paneled space draws its charm from multiple sources. Under a grand oil rendering of Sinatra midcroon, a cross section of real Chicagoans mingles with a joyously proficient staff that wastes not a second or motion. Rosebud keeps everyone happy by serving unpretentious food for unpretentious people: baked ziti and veal piccata and chicken Parmesan and lamb chops oreganato, most of it oversized, oversauced, and oversalted, usually with a side salad and pasta, also huge. If you skipped arm day at the gym, lugging your doggie bag home should do the trick. “We’re not known for our small portions,” the waiter boasted. He was funny, smart, and prompt, and if romanticizing overconsumption has fallen out of vogue, such trivialities didn’t interest him. Not when the tables in his station are full night after night.
True, little of the menu makes a lasting impression. Maybe the veal milanese, three generous and tender hunks with a lovely crisp pan-fried breading and arugula. Or the giant baked mushrooms capped with breadcrumbs, served over a lemon-butter sauce that’s neither too garlicky or sherry-y but explains why the two go together. But, too many of the pastas, like the rigatoni alla vodka and linguine with clams, get cooked into the ground and smothered with sauce. You eat them anyway, and maybe some of your tablemate’s strangely sweet chicken Vesuvio, and hate yourself for it. Guilt, anxiety, hipness, manners: It all melts away as you fall under the restaurant’s perplexing spell.
Rosebud doesn’t upsell you. It doesn’t have to. You upsell yourself, ordering another Beefeater martini or bottle of Chalone Pinot, and sure, let’s split a slice of that coconut cake that was made offsite. Why not, you shrug, while trading quips with your gloriously old-school server.
How does Rosebud do it? I’m not sure. Could be as simple as understanding that some things matter more to some diners than food: feeling welcome, getting a bargain, reliving memories (even if it’s in the bluntest way possible). Guess when it comes to nostalgia, there’s no such thing as too much sauce.
What if someone could bottle Rosebud’s magic, take it to West Randolph Street, and elevate the food? Chicagoans would line up halfway to Wisconsin.
John Ross and Philip Walters, two of the savvy gentlemen behind two very good restaurants, the Bristol and Balena, seem like the perfect guys to do it. They adore the kind of homey postwar Italian American spot where Michael Corleone might have taken out Sollozzo and a corrupt cop over a plate of veal. So does their chef, Balena veteran Tony Quartaro. Unfortunately, they’ve created something else entirely, and that something isn’t nearly as lovable.
The gleaming 8,000-square-foot space feels great, with its exposed brick beams and marble bar modern enough that you don’t roll your eyes at kitschy details such as the bathroom’s black-and-white photos of Brando and Monroe, which may as well be pilfered from Buca di Beppo. But after settling into a mahogany banquette, you quickly realize that Quartaro has greater ambitions than supper club sauce bombs.
The first hint is an outstanding homemade giardiniera served with focaccia. Then, most tables order the relish tray, a gorgeous offering of green olives stuffed with bagna cauda, finicky little salads of eggplant and cauliflower, a sweet potato “cannoli,” stuffed radicchio, and cubed Ligurian beets topped with pesto and puffed rice. Not everything works, but the designer’s eye for detail does.
While Formento’s tries to conjure a simpler past, the kitchen also wants to show how clever it can be. So for every standard, such as punchy clams casino stuffed with salami and breadcrumbs, you get a dish such as a tiny, bland rabbit cacciatore sporting a fancy crespelle wrapped with saddle and topped with porcini and capers, a creation with far more brains than flavor.
It’s Russian roulette. Excellent braised lamb; soupy fontina-creamed escarole. Impressive San Daniele prosciutto with pickled cabbage, apple conserva, and cheddary frico wafers; dull Steak de Burgo. And several straight-up classics get undercut by issues ranging from temperature problems (a promising veal tomahawk chop in marsala deserved better) to senseless oversalting, zapping the life from dishes that are supposed to be full of spirit (wedding soup, eggplant Parmesan).
The menu’s safest haven: Quartaro’s mighty handmade pastas. Rustic orecchiette blends with hearty barese sausage. Ricotta, sweet Sicilian eggplant, and caramelized onions deepen wonderful al dente cavatelli. A perfect farm egg and Pecorino Romano melt into lush bucatini carbonara with cubes of guanciale. These represent what Formento’s should shoot for: simple, hearty food made with good ingredients and care.
Nowhere does Formento’s diverge further from Rosebud than in the service department. On my first visit, the loquacious server broke the record for the longest, and least helpful, menu spiel. (Although while describing the daily fish he offered, “We take out the bones, but, you know, every now and then, one will be stuck in there.” Good to know.) On my second, what should have been a two-hour meal lasted three and a half. Even after the apologetic manager promised to comp all manner of pesci, carni, and dolci, we still had another hour. By the time dinner ended, the rest of Randolph Street had gone to bed, which I didn’t think was possible.
Pastry chef Sarah Koechling, a veteran of the Bristol and Balena, crafts a memorable chocolate cake with chocolate pudding and a hazelnut praline crunch, and her salted caramel ice cream—embedded with chunks of homemade caramel—is one of Chicago’s best. The leather-bound wine list contains plenty of gems, including Formento’s own 2011 Nebbiolo Barbaresco, an opulent pleasure ($18 a glass) made in Piedmont.
Formento’s has higher ambitions and better food than Rosebud, but without the efficiency and charm. Instead of bothering with finesse, Rosebud guarantees that its customers, and their time, feel treasured. Formento’s makes it clear that it owns your time. But at the moment, it doesn’t seem certain what to do with it.