Tony Mantuano was so vigilant in his quest to introduce the Windy City to Italy's best cheese, finest wine and the precise mixture of olives, that the pricey Spiaggia changed the way Italian food was perceived in the U.S.
But few diners knew they can still experience Mantuano's masterpieces at a few steps away without cashing in all their junk bonds. Creativity and affordability meet at Cafe Spiaggia, where guests can alternate their gaze between panoramic views of Lake Michigan and the interior's 15th-century frescos inspired by the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua. Touches of the new millennium, like oversized wine glasses and contemporary table settings purchased from local businesses, are showcased in glass at various locations throughout the restaurant.
The menu at Cafe Spiaggia is a similar marriage between the tried-and-true and newer concoctions. The appetizer menu, generally priced at a reasonable $10, offers crab cakes, a Creole classic, garnished with capers and olives and sided by an aioli dipping sauce. Artichokes, or carciofi ai forno, are rolled in lemon, garlic and chili and toasted in the Spiaggia-perfected wood burning oven. For ladies who lunch, the pea salad is a fantastically sweet combination of pea shoots, pea tendrils and sweet peas garnished with bacon, cheeses and a lemon vinaigrette.
If you can stay for the whole meal, sample one of Cafe Spiaggia's signature dishes, potato gnocchi surrounded by a generous serving of braised oxtail. If gnocchi is practicality, then the lasagnetta is the most perfect indulgence. Executive chef Missy Robbins describes it as lighter than typical lasagnas, as it's composed of only two layers and doesn't contain marinara, instead using two cheeses, bean, peas and asparagus.
Finish with tiramisu, a dish consistently recognized in any Chicago foodie awards category. Less ambitious dessert-takers can opt for the gelato, which comes six to an order in a variety of flavor choices.
Average cost: $21-$30
Centerstage Reviewer: Robin Wright