Recently I was raving to some friends about my dining experience at Siena Tavern. I said that it's in my "top 3" Chicago Italian restaurants, which prompted them to ask what the other top ones were. Then they suggested that I rank my favorites and blog about them, so I gave it some thought and ranked my top 10 here for you!
I love Italian food and my husband would probably rank it as one of his favorites too, so when we dine out we often find ourselves at Italian restaurants-- new ones and old favorites. It was honestly very difficult to keep it to a list of 10. Also, here are a few notes to consider when I was coming up with this list:
-I did not include restaurants that serve primarily pizza here. I know pizza is Italian, but I usually consider a pizzeria a category in itself. La Madia and Piece Pizzeria & Brewery, for example, are two of my favorite pizza places.
-Spiaggia is arguably the best/most well known Italian restaurant in the city. I have eaten here once, but it was for an event so I didn't dine off the menu. The banquet menu was excellent and I still want to eat there for real, I just didn't think it was fair to judge that luncheon against some of these other meals where I had my choice of what to eat.
1. Balena, Lincoln Park
Why I love it: Balena is a best of both worlds kind of restaurant. The space is itself is chic yet rustic and the atmosphere is upscale, but not stuffy. The food is a perfect combination of local seasonal ingredients and traditional Italian dishes.
Favorite Dish: Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe. Check out Kit's ode to this deliciously simple pasta here.
2. Davanti Enoteca, Little Italy (and now River North too)
Why I love it: The atmosphere here is wonderful. It's cozy, rustic, and romantic-- an ideal location for date night. Everything here is intended for sharing, so you get a great opportunity to sample and share a variety of dishes.
Favorite Dish: Focaccia di Recco served with fresh soft riccotta-like cheese and local honey. This dish is heavenly.
3. Siena Tavern, River North
Why I love it: The newest Italian restaurant on the Chicago scene, this place is trendy, bustling, and high energy. It's the brainchild of the Dine Amic Group (the guys behind popular Chicago bars Public House and Bull & Bear) and the incredibly charming chef Fabio Viviani of Top Chef fame. I got a quick glance at him while we were eating dinner. Swoon.
Favorite Dish: Coccoli. Light and savory Italian donuts served with prosciutto, cheese, truffle honey.
4. Scoozi!, River North
Why I love it: I have been here at least a dozen times and the experience is consistently good. It's tucked into a more residential part of River North so the feel is more laidback and neighborhood-y than bustling and touristy. The food is delicious and more reasonably priced than many of the other restaurants on this list and in River North.
Favorite Dish: A tie between the Brussels sprout salad and their season ravioli-- especially butternut squash.
5. The Florentine, The Loop
Why I love it: This restaurant is a hidden gem among the mostly lame (sad, but true) restaurant scene in the Loop. It's located on the second floor of the JW Marriott hotel, so with no street frontage it stays a bit quieter than your typical downtown restaurant. The restaurant is spacious and stylish and they are open breakfast through dinner.
Favorite Dish: They used to serve bomboloni (Italian donuts) with assorted dipping sauces for dessert and it was amazing! It's not on the menu anymore (boo!), so a close second would be the ravioli with mushroom, ricotta, arugula, goat cheese, pine nuts.
6. Quartino, River North
Why I love it: One of the first restaurants that Alex and I ate at when he took me to Chicago for the first time. I loved it so much that I have been back multiple times, have brought various guests, and even tried to host our rehearsal dinner here (they were already booked, of course). The restaurant is loud and energetic and the menu here is focused on small plates and sharing, so it's a really fun place to dine at with a big group.
Favorite Dish: Polenta fries with red bell pepper sauce. A really unique and super tasty bar snack.
7. Francesca's restaurants, located everywhere, but in particular, Gold Coast, Lakeview, Wicker Park
Why I love it: They have several locations throughout Chicago and the surrounding suburbs and no matter which one you go to, you can count on great service and a really solid meal.
Favorite Dish: I have sung it's praises before, but the roasted corn panzanella salad at Francesca's Forno in Wicker Park is one of my all time favorite dishes.
8. Via Carducci, Lincoln Park & Wicker Park
Why I love it: Both locations are small, cozy, and laidback. The vibe is very much like the tiny old trattorias I visited in Italy. The food is simple and delicious.
Favorite Dish: Rigatoni Siciliana, pasta with eggplant and fresh mozzarella in a creamy tomato sauce. I have never ordered anything else.
9. RPM Italian, River North
Why I love it: It's fabulous. The decor is high end, the bar is always bustling, and it's a little taste of Hollywood since it is owned by LA/Chicago celebrities (Bill and Giuliana Rancic). The chic atmosphere and small plate menu would make it an ideal location for a downtown bachelorette party.
Favorite Dish: Zucchini fritti with herb dipping sauce, a perfect starter.
10. Piccolo Sogno, River West (and now River North)
Why I love it: I haven't been to the new River North location, but the original in River West is so lovely and they have a spacious romantic outdoor patio. My other favorite thing about this restaurant is also my favorite dish...
Favorite Dish: the market antipasti. It's not on the menu, but when you walk into the restaurant they have a huge spread on display of beautiful antipasti components: freshly sliced prosciutto, cheeses, olives, roasted vegetables, breads, and spreads. The ingredients and price change daily, but it's always the highlight of my meal there.
*Honorable mentions that did not make it into my top 10: Osteria Via Stato, Coco Pazzo, La Scarola, Vivo, Trattoria Isabella.