“People go wild over my marinara sauce,” says Sead Habibovic, owner and chef at Toscana (4907 Oakton St., Skokie; 847-674-5446), a simple, roomy hideaway that he runs with his wife, Amra. One bite of his vegetarian napoleon (pictured here; $8.75), a lively layering of noodles, ricotta, spinach, zucchini, and breaded eggplant splashed with a deep red marinara, turns us into instant fans. Habibovic hails from Bosnia but perfected his pasta prowess at restaurants in Italy and Austria, followed by a ten-year stint as sous-chef at The Berghoff. Nearly everything offered at Toscana sneaks in under $10, so it’s fun to mix it up. Start with made-from-scratch soups such as soothing, crouton-bedecked cream of broccoli, move on to bruschetta dotted with roasted tomato and goat cheese, split a pasta or two, and have a go at the zaftig burger with sizzling cottage fries. Pizza is another possibility; the thin-crust offerings come generously dappled with such unexpected bounty as corn and salami, an egg, and artichoke hearts. Weekends bend toward Bosnia: rosemary-scented stuffed leg of lamb ($15.95) makes an appearance, and so does Habibovic’s mother’s phyllo dough stuffed with goodies like salmon, cream cheese, and leeks or a trio of savory mushrooms. Upon leaving, don’t be surprised if Sead pops out of the kitchen to say goodbye. It’s that kind of a place.
Daniel Kelly, who briefly stunned Chicagoans with the West Loop’s D. Kelly, then faded away when the restaurant closed in 2004, is back with Avenue M (695 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 312-243-1133). This time, he has hooked up with a team of nightlife veterans-their credits include Bacchus, Circus, and The Green Room-to open a contemporary American steak house in the former Como space. Come March, Avenue M’s dining room, two balconies, and 2,000-square-foot patio will be full of prime steaks and intricate Kelly trademarks such as a pan-seared chicken breast stuffed with Maine lobster and resting on a wild rice medley and sauce américaine (pictured here; $24).
When Alexander Cheswick, chef-owner of the new May Street Market (1132 W. Grand Ave.; 312-421-5547), graduated from St. Ignatius College Prep in 1992, several of his friends were Ivy League bound. He went to the Culinary Institute of America. “I was passionate about great-tasting food even then,” he says. Fourteen years later, after learning at Le Français, Tru, and various impressive-sounding spots in the Alps, Cheswick is taking the same cerebral approach as his former classmates. MSM’s border-hopping dishes include a fillet of tilapia in a zucchini jacket with artichokes, carrot noodles, and coriander sauce, on a bed of coriander seeds (pictured here; $18). A bonus: the restaurant will partner with Artisan Wine Cellars in the Merchandise Mart to offer selections at close to wine-store prices. Brilliant.
When baseball season is in full swing, it’s easy to remember to eat at cozy Franco’s Ristorante (300 W. 31st St.; 312-225-9566), just a few blocks north of U.S. Cellular Field. But the homey cooking is as reliable-and the hospitality as warm-whether the Sox are playing or not. Minestrone looks mild mannered but surprises with a rich, hammy broth and peppery kick. Penne in spicy pesto with capers, basil, and prosciutto (pictured here; $10) is just one of many deeply satisfying pastas; chops, roasted salmon, and steak al forno are among the other appealing choices.