“Where the water costs more than the wine” – Quartino Restaurant
Italy can be hard to describe to those who have never been there. Beyond obvious things like ancient building facades and wonderful smells wafting out of kitchen windows and into the narrow cobblestone streets, there is a rhythm to life that takes a bit longer to notice. Although the markets open early, the locals leisurely enjoy espresso or cappuccino at coffee bars before choosing their vegetables, meats, and cheeses for the day. Daytime meals tend to be lighter, but late in the evening the restaurants start to fill up with diners, usually peaking after 9pm, for extended meals lasting 2-3 hours or more. Although the theme of the meal will vary by region, culture, and local ingredients; the main dish is invariably the conversation. That is to say, the Italians thrive on a steady diet of friendship, family, and romance, to be enjoyed over a table of culinary delights that dazzle with their simple elegance.
It has been said that French cuisine thrives on technique; that a talented chef is the most important ingredient in French food. In Italy, it is the ingredients that take center stage, and the truly masterful Italian chef does his best to present them in the most honest and harmonious way, letting the quality of the food shine through. What should be noted is that a massive amount of artistry and technique goes into preparing authentic Italian, and this is something that genuinely talented Italian chefs will downplay. To do it any other way would simply be wrong. This commitment to quality is an expression of the passion with which Italians approach most things in life. What Chef John Coletta has accomplished at Quartino is to capture the best of this Italian passion for dining, and present it in a way that lets the quality of his food speak for itself.
With very little effort you can step off the bustling streets of downtown Chicago and enter a world of relaxed Italian dining at a level of quality almost indistinguishable from the great restaurants I’ve visited in Italy. The rustic wood touches, high pressed tin ceilings, white subway tiles, vintage mirrors, and the newspapers connected to a spreader/paddle hanging in the entryway take me back to Italy. The atmosphere is cozy and relaxed without feeling busy or cluttered. This is a modern dining room in its operation, with a very easy style that I would describe as traditional street cafe with an upscale classical flair. Very tasteful and inviting, this is a very nice atmosphere to enjoy a meal. The wait staff are very friendly and helpful, always attentive but not annoyingly so, and our server Kim was very knowledgeable about the menu and the ingredients, answering questions and helping arrange the crowded plates on our table. The artistry that goes on in the kitchen spills over into the dining room, where an array of artisanal Italian breads stand in a large working display, above a slicing machine where the baskets of table bread are freshly prepared as you are seated.
The main dining room features the salumeria (Italian for deli) with homemade salumi and prosciutti hanging overhead, where they serve up an array of imported Italian meats, cheeses, olives, roasted peppers, artichokes and giardiniera. The little which is not imported directly from Italy is prepared in-house according to Chef Coletta’s authentic recipes; some examples are the salamette (lightly spiced Italian salami), sopressata (spicy Calabrian sausage), and duck prosciutto (aromatic seasoned Moulard duck breast). There are unobtrusive television screens playing something or other by Fellini, muted of course, as a pleasant diversion to diners. As you sit down at your table you are presented with a menu, and notice the bottles of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar to accompany the basket of freshly sliced rustic Italian bread. As the dishes are designed for sharing, a stack of small plates stand at the ready for each successive course of your meal.
The menu at Quartino features authentic, traditional Italian dishes from various regions across Italia. On the menu you will find wine bar plates, soups/salads, fondue, handmade pastas, imported pastas, Piemontese risotto, seafood, house specialties, and even Napolitano pizza. If you’re in the mood for salumi and formaggi you are in luck. You will find a variety of olives, spuntini or snacks including roasted peppers, artichokes and Sicilian caponata. They have many imported authentic DOP cheeses such as Fontina Val D’Aosta, Parmigiano Reggiano, Academia Barilla Pecorino Dolce, and Asiago Vecchio to name only a few. There is a little something for everyone on this menu and you will also notice they have vegetarian options and many dishes can be prepared gluten-friendly on request.
First dishes to arrive, the wine bar plates/salad:
House Made Goats Milk Ricotta with Fresh Oregano & DOP Val Di Mazara Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil: served with grilled Pugliese bread. The goats milk ricotta is light, creamy and richer than a cow’s milk ricotta. The Pugliese bread is rustic in texture, grilled nicely with the tender, chewy interior intact. Even if you are a little skeptical about goats milk cheeses or hate the pungent ‘goaty’ flavor of ripe goats milk cheeses, you won’t find a hint of that here, just a creamy richness unrivaled by cow’s milk, and it is fantastic atop the grilled bread. Served in a generous portion drizzled with olive oil, simple as it was, this is one of my favorite treats at Quartino.
Dates Wrapped in Pancetta and filled with Gorgonzola Dolce and drizzled with Honey: The earthy sweetness of the dates are complemented by the crisp pancetta, as smoked bacon often overwhelms their delicate flavor in this popular dish. The sweet gorgonzola dolce enhances the earthy flavor of the dates in a way that is rich yet subtle; these are a great way to open your palate.
Polenta Fries with Red Bell Pepper Salsa: Thick cut and fried golden, these were crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Not the least bit greasy, and the polenta interior retained its creamy texture, not the gummy texture of leftover polenta, and had a delicate malted flavor that added some complexity to the dish. The red bell pepper salsa smelled spicy but was subtle in its bite. The taste was familiar to me and reminded me a bit of a Mediterranean Ajvar, and complimented the polenta fries very nicely.
House Made Burrata with Heirloom Roasted Beet Salad on top of Arugula: If any of you have not heard of or tried Burrata, this wonderfully creamy fresh mozzarella, you are missing out. Burrata is a fresh cheese, similar to mozzarella, but made in a way that creates a pouch of sorts of finished cheese, which is then filled with cream and tied closed. It has a much lighter texture than your average fresh mozzarella di Bufala, and much creamier taste. Delightful all by itself, but when you take a bite of the burrata, together with tender roast beets, thinly shaved pickled beets and peppery arugula all together, the combination of creamy, earthy, sweet, and tangy all together, this dish is transformed into something extraordinary.
House Made Ravioli stuffed with Braised Pork, Speck, and Fava Beans: The braised, shredded pork filling was tender and perfectly seasoned. The texture is hard to describe, very finely shredded to a consistency that perfectly complements the tender pasta. They arrived in a shallow pool of pork broth made rich with red wine, and topped with crisp speck, or smoked prosciutto. The thin sauce was incredible, I would guess it had a deep, roasted pork flavor and I found myself sopping it up with bits of bread. The fava means were an amusing addition, tender but somehow meaty in the sauce, with slivers of mushroom and sweet roasted cherry tomatoes with a concentrated sweetness. A Wonderful dish and very satisfying.
House Made Gnocchi with Fresh Green Beans and Arugula Pesto: The house made gnocchi was tender and light, without the gummy texture of the bad gnocchi that turns people off. My first few encounters with gnocchi were so bad, that it took me years before giving it another chance. This is delightfully prepared and the pesto sauce is yet again a subtle addition, letting the taste of the gnocchi come through, with delightfully crisp green beans adding texture and freshness.
Organic Veal Skirt Steak with Wild Arugula, Cherry Tomatoes and Lemon: The steak was very nicely cooked with an intense seared beef taste, which really amplified the mild flavor of the young beef. This was further enhanced by the sweet roasted cherry tomatoes and lemon, and the blanched arugula was a very tasty way to sop up the seared juices.
Beef Short Ribs with Salsa Verde: These were marvelous short ribs, where do I begin. When the plate arrived at our table, the presentation alone was jaw-dropping. A large rib-bone with a generous chunk of beef atop, ladled with pan juices and topped with salsa verde looked like a magazine cover, so pretty I was hesitant to touch it with my fork. No knife needed, this was the most tender short rib I have ever tasted, so lovingly prepared it nearly brought my husband to tears. This is the definition of melt-in-your mouth tender, and perfectly executed, I think this was the stand out among everything that we tried. The flavor was so rich and the salsa verde stood in stark contrast cutting the richness and balancing the dish wonderfully.
Tiramisu: We’ve all had tiramisu but you haven’t had Chef Coletta’s tiramisu. How does his version differ you ask? The familiar soggy ladyfingers soaked in cold espresso have been upgraded to a tender, moist cake with hints of espresso throughout. Subtle in its presentation, what really shines is the extra creamy filling, and it’s not overly sweet. I found it delicate and superb.
Sgroppino: As a cross between a prosecco cocktail and a dessert, Sgroppino is a traditional palate-cleansing Italian dessert that is versatile enough to be served as an aperitif. Sgroppino was invented by the Venetians in the 16th century, the name comes from the Venetian dialect and means “to untie a little knot”, that is, the knot in your stomach after too much delicious Italian food. This cocktail is very popular in the Veneto region of Italy, made from lemon gelato, vodka, and a bubbly prosecco. When you mix all three of these delicious ingredients together you get a creamy-smooth, frothy dessert, which came served in a Quartino, or quarter-liter wine carafe, as a perfect way to top off a large meal. If an aperitif serves to open the appetite, this one is a pleasant way to close it.
Zeppole: These Italian doughnuts more commonly known as beignets are fried golden crisp. The shell texture is a more pastry-like compared to regular doughnuts with a light, airy sponge interior with hint of lemon. They are served with powder sugar on top and accompanied by a dark chocolate espresso sauce and delicious wildflower honey.
House Made “100 Lemon” Limoncello and House Made “Siciliano” Orangecello: It has been said that the very best Limoncello comes from Sicily. The method of preparation starts with the zesting of 100 Sicilian lemons, and this is the closest you will get to Sicilian limoncello without a passport. Chef Coletta’s method yields the tastiest limoncello I have ever had, with droplets of lemon oil on the surface floating above a cloud of residual zest. The orangecello is prepared the same way, and was a delightful alternative, should you need one. Intensely flavored, these are sweet on the finish, and do a fantastic job of refreshing the palate after a rich meal. You should try one of each!
Overall, Quartino has an inviting atmosphere, lively with the busy wait staff delivering impeccably prepared dishes at a dizzying pace. There is a little something here for everyone. Serving over 30 fine imported Italian wines hand-picked by Chef Coletta, many of which are undiscovered gems from small local producers all across Italy and offered at great prices, Quartino is the perfect wine bar for after work drinks and small plates. The menu accommodates everything from a special date to a night out with friends. A large upstairs dining room is available to host parties and special occasions. If you are ready to try true, authentic Italian cuisine, and enjoy uncompromising quality, in my opinion Quartino is the best place in town to get it.