I was devastated when I learned over the summer that Terragusto was closing its doors. The tiny Roscoe Village restaurant housed in a non-descript storefront has long been one of my favorite places to indulge in homemade rustic Italian food. Terragusto was BYOB from day one, which made it for me (and many others) an affordable indulgence.
Terragusto owner Theo Gilbert told Eater Chicago ( chicago.eater.com/ ) that one of the reasons he was throwing in the towel was that he'd grown tired of wannabes drinking cheap wine with his fancy food. The website quoted him:
"When I originally put it together, I had a specific clientele — foodies who got it who had great bottles of wine and had no place to go," Gilbert said. "As the economy tanked the demographic shifted. Those great customers we had were crowded out by people who didn't care about the food, but could BYOB their Two-Buck Chuck."
Ouch. Really, Mr. Gilbert? We're sorry we couldn't keep our wine cellars stocked to your standards during the worst economy of our lifetimes.
Nevertheless, I've developed an addiction to Gilbert's impossibly fresh pastas, crispy baked polenta and succulent pan-seared fish. So, when I heard he planned to open a new spot with a full bar, I was still resentful, but also secretly relieved.
Earlier this year, Gilbert opened Ripasso in Bucktown. The restaurant's name is derived from the Italian verb "ripassare," which means "to enrich or make better," according to Ripasso's website. OKI'm listening.
After a delightful visit a few weeks ago, I'm pleased to report that Ripasso has retained many of the things I loved so much about Terragusto. In fact, the menu is nearly identical, but with a few fun new additions. I don't know that I'd say that Terragusto has been "made better," but it certainly has been made more expensive because there is no BYOB option.
In fairness, Gilbert and his team have made an effort to make good wines available at reasonable prices. I loved the Colterenzio Pino Nero, which is like a pinot noir with a bit more body, and can be yours for $35. The Stefano Farina Barbera d'Alba also works well with many of the menu items and costs $35. If you're one of the "low-lifes" who have been drinking "Two-Buck Chuck" at Terragusto, don't worry; the knowledgeable wait staff will happily help you choose a bottle (or three) to accompany your Italian feast.
Like at Terragusto, the food at Ripasso is meant to be enjoyed family style. Your waiter will encourage you to place your entire order at the beginning of the meal so they can course it appropriately, and if you have a party of five or more, he or she will insist upon it. So, order a glass of wine, request a basket of the delicious fresh-baked bread, and study the menu to design a strategy.
I'd recommend ordering one or two items for your antipasti course. My top pick is the sformato, which is a warm savory custard filled with seasonal ingredients. (It's like quiche, but creamier and without crust.) On my visit, the sfromato was flavored with roasted onion and served with olive oil-braised rabbit, mushrooms and aruguladivine. The polpetti is also an excellent option your whole table with love. These aren't your ordinary, run-of-the mill meatballs. They're juicy, well-seasoned and doused in a tangy tomato sauce. My dining companions and I kept them around throughout the meal to munch on between courses.
For my money, Ripasso's pastas are the star of the show, and you'll want to order about one per person. The pappardelle is a must-order item. The wide ribbon noodles are baked in creamy four-meat sauce of veal, lamb, beef and pork, and then topped with Parmigianino and white truffle. I was skeptical that a four-meat sauce would be anything I'd enjoy. But, let me tell you, it works in a big way. This pappardelle is like the most decadent (and carnivorous) mac and cheese you'll ever eat.
I also highly recommend the capellacci. In this dish, the "pope's hats"basically, fancy homemade ravioli stuffed with autumn squashes and Parmigiano and drizzled with a sage-brown butter sauce that strikes the perfect (and very difficult to achieve) balance between sweet and savory.
For your final course, you can't go wrong with any of Ripasso's four simple choices, but if you're only going to order one, make it the fish. Gilbert and his team have a special talent for seasoning and searing fish to perfection. On my visit, they were serving rainbow trout, which every person in my party of six adored. The strip steak is also a contender. Mine was full or flavor, but was a little tough and chewy, so I'm not sure I'd order it again.
Don't skip dessert at Ripasso, even if you're full, which you will be. I sampled the ricotta-lemon torta with cherry-wine glaze, an inventive and well-executed dessert that captures the several of winter's best flavors. But, the maple panna cotta is, hands down, the best sweet offering on the menu. I eat a lot of panna cotta, and I can say this is one of the richest, creamiest versions in Chicago. The subtle maple flavoring and the apple pine-but salad on top just made a fantastic dessert even better.
Maybe I drank Gilbert's Kool-aid (or Chianti, in this case), but I will admit that his exquisitely handmade Italian cuisine does, in fact, taste even better with wines selected from his approved list. If you loved Terragusto like I did, you'll enjoy Ripasso just as much. If you've never had the pleasure of a meal carefully orchestrated by Gilbert, then you are in for a delightful surprise.
Ripasso is located at 1619 N. Damen Ave.; call 773-342-8799 or visit http://www.ripassochicago.com/Home_Page.html.
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