First Taste: Azzurra EnoTavola
In a neighborhood better known for tacos and vintage-store skinny jeans, Azzurra EnoTavola provides a rustic, transportive segue to the lush Italian countryside. The restaurant comes courtesy of Marty Fosse, a man renowned for his revered Italian restaurants in Andersonville, Anteprima and Ombra. Azzurra recalls much of Anteprima's charm both in its decor and menu composition, giving Wicker Parkers a taste of Fosse's talents in the comfort of their blue line-adjacent 'hood. From lamb meatballs to stunning platters of pristine shellfish, Azzurra is rocking on all cylinders, and rocking hard.
Suffice to say there is nothing of this caliber anywhere near Wicker Park when it comes to Italian food. Not only does the menu read like an authentic foray into regional Italian cuisine, but the dishes display a definitive knack for precision and tradition. This is quintessential Italian grandma food at its best. The menu is rather massive, but manageable and perfect for sharing and sampling your way through Italy. It's divvied into three categories: assaggi e piu, paste, and piatti unici, some of which would be frustratingly difficult to tanslate were it not made blatantly obvious by the dishes listed therein. The menu is teeming with appetizers, making it almost overwhelming but mostly exciting. You want to try everything, but you also want to save room for larger plates. How to decide! I'll tell you: by diving mouth-first into a platter of lamb meatballs splashed with preserved lemon yogurt, a mercifully and blissfully tender melange of grilled octopus, and a pungent chicken liver mousse crostini. Another unusual stunner is Azzurra's adaptation of Brussels sprouts, prepared by frying the leaves alone and heaping them on a plate with the airy texture of crispy bonito flakes.
Moving on, all pastas are impressively made in-house, from the mushroom-filled ravioli to the tagliatelle awash in prosciutto ragu. My favorite was the orechiette, toothsome doughy medallions flecked with succulent knobs of crumbled Italian sausage, rapini, pecorino, and plenty of garlicky goodness. For entrees, this is where the comfort food quotient goes through the roof. There's Chianti-braised short ribs, grilled prawns, whitefish piccata, and a stunning brick-grilled Cornish hen, with an ethereally crisp crust giving way to a meltingly tender flesh. Desserts are fairly standard, save for the revelatory butternut squash budino, which single-handedly stops me from yawning every time I see the words "butternut squash" on menus.
The all-Italian wine list is the perfect yin to the food menu's yang. It's a pretty concise list, making it easy to navigate and make selections. Prosecco and brut rosé make for good sparkling options, adjoined by several white and red options. All wines are available by the glass and the bottle, which is nice and accessible. Italian beers come by the draft and the bottle as well, along with a few American options. Azzurra also sports an impressive cocktail list for an Italian restaurant. Each one features a sensible Italian ingredient, be it Prosecco or Lambrusco or Grappa di Moscato. The Vimini features infused Heaven Hill, lemon, simple syrup, and Lambrusco; Bacio combines Hendrick's gin with Luxardo Maraschino, thyme-honey syrup, and blood orange; and Morte Nel Pomeriggio contains Luxardo Sambuca, lemon, bitters, and Prosecco.
Like nothing else in Wicker Park, and in fact like pretty much nothing else in Chicago save for Anteprima, Azzurra captures the air of the leisurely Italian countryside. You'd never think you were in such close proximity to Urban Outfitters. The restaurant is warm, well-lit, and lounge-y in the way you'd expect of a countryside manor. Large, lush murals depict tempting landscapes, while a bar towards the back of the restaurant lends a little more energy and verve to the homey room.
- Matt Kirouac