It's hard to believe La Scarola has only been in our lives since 1996. The timeworn Italian restaurant feels like it's been a West Town fixture forever. It was opened by Joey Mondelli, the type of gruff-but-lovable Italian gent you'd expect to see smacking guests' shoulders and encouraging skinny people to finish their portions. Even though it's only been on Grand Avenue for under two decades, it has the essence of a true Chicago staple, from the rustic decor and the career waiters to the indulgent portions of saucy pasta and the library of celebrity photographs covering the walls.
You don't experience restaurants like La Scarola any more these days. In the world of fast-paced empire-building restaurant groups and trendsetting one-upping, restaurants rooted in the classics tend to get buried and forgotten. Unless they're as good as La Scarola. They're not trying to compete with the places on Restaurant Row nearby, nor are they promoting themselves as a Chicago hot spot for see-and-be-seen clientele. They're simply revered, due primarily to their jovial hospitality and ample portions of Italian soul food. Walking into the rickety restaurant, guests fall down a veritable rabbit hole of Italian nostalgia. Divvied into a few haphazard, colorful dining areas (and one cramped hallway bar), La Scarola feels more like an Italian grandmother's eclectic living room than a restaurant. If said grandmother hobnobbed with David Schwimmer and had photographic evidence of that displayed on the wall. Tables are arranged randomly around the oddly shaped rooms, providing cozy nooks and crannies for diners to dig into their dinner. If ever there was a Lady and the Tramp-esque dining experience in real life, this would be it. The only thing missing is an accordion. And dogs.
Longtime waiters set the pace for a homey dinner experience every time. The buttoned up-yet-boisterous staff are fun, engaging, and brusque in a lovable teddy bear like way. It's the kind of place where bottomless baskets of (somewhat stale) bread are a constant table fixture, adjoined by fruity olive oil, and where wine pours are sufficient enough to send an oenophile elephant into a drunken stupor. All the Italian classics are present and accounted for from appetizers through dessert. Start with the stunningly fresh bruschetta, a vibrant marvel even in the dead of winter. Garlicky escarole and beans are an apt starter as well, considering the restaurant draws its name from the leafy green. One of their signature items and a perpetual crowd favorites is the eggplant Parmigiana, and rightfully so. It's hard to come across a good, classic eggplant Parmesan in Chicago, but La Scarola does it right. Succulent, meaty slices of eggplant are liberally breaded and fried until tender, crisp, and salty. They're immersed in a tangy tomato sauce and capped with a molten patina of cheese. And then just for the hell of it, it's served with a side of saucy pasta, so you can sort of construct each bite as you please, incorporating bowtie pasta into your Parmigiana. Another standby that La Scarola does justice is a very simple spaghetti and meatballs. The baseball-sized beef balls are as rich and savory as tiny meatloaves, covered in piquant marinara and strewn with spaghetti. For entrees, chicken Vesuvio, veal Marsala, and risotto primavera are all solid, classic options. For dessert, a few random American items (chocolate cake, cheesecake) mingle with Italian essentials like cannoli and tiramisu. Needless to say, go for the latter, particularly the tiramisu, a tasteful melange of mildly boozy ladyfingers, mascarpone, and espresso.
While the rest of Chicago scrambles to get a seat at Nico Osteria, Eataly, and Cicchetti, it's good to acknowledge one of the most esteemed Italian restaurants around. Hifalutin preparations and techniques are good and all, but sometimes all we need if a big ol' plate of Parmigiana in a setting rich with nostalgia.
- Matt Kirouac