[Note: This is an anonymous review, as opposed to last week's profile by Andrew Davis.]
The team behind Andersonville's Ombra, Acre and Anteprima, some of my all-time favorite spots, opened a new Italian restaurant in Wicker Park late last year. I dined there recently, with high expectations, based on my previous experiences at the group's other restaurants.
Unfortunately, while there were some high points, Azzurra EnoTavola didn't quite deliver the same delicious kind of meal I've come to expect from its sister establishments.
Azzurra EnoTavola occupies a small space on a lively strip of Milwaukee Avenue. The dining room is visually jarring, unlike the subdued and charming décor at Ombra, Acre and Anteprima. The room manages to be neither hip and urban, nor quaint and Italian. Instead it's a bizarre hybrid of the two that doesn't mix well, made even worse by too-bright lighting.
The menu is made up of Italian small plates, many similar to the cicchetti you'll find at Ombra, as well as a selection of slightly larger pastas and fish and meat dishes. All of the items are meant to be shared.
The arancini, which is typically made with risotto, is filled instead with farro. I love farro, but I don't think it works well as a risotto substitute.
The arancini, while nicely flavored with pungent mushrooms, ended up a bit on the dry side once it was fried. A more satisfying use of the farro was a warm salad with tender escarole. My favorite of the small plates was a savory mixture of soft polenta, Italian sausage and shrimp. The presentation left a little to be desired and the shrimp could have been bigger, but the flavors worked well together.
I was really excited by the pasta and meat selection of the menu because it includes so many of my favorite foods: gnocchi, short ribs, cavatelli with basil pesto and ravioli with sage butter, to name a few. Sadly, the items I sampled just didn't deliver. The gnocchi was served in a cheesy cream sauce, which was nicely seasoned. But the tasty sauce couldn't compensate for the gummy texture of the gnocchi. I was looking forward to delightful springy little pasta pillows, but this gnocchi was undercooked and doughy.
Even more disappointing was the Chiantibraised beef short rib. Like you'll find at so many restaurants these days, the short rib is served with polenta and Brussels sprouts. I didn't necessarily mind the lack of creativity it's a winning combination of flavors. However, the short rib had a sweet, almost chemical flavor that for me rendered it inedible.
Azzurra EnoTavola does a have a nice wine list, with lots of great Italian varietals. The Farina Gavi, from Italy's Piedmont region, is a crisp and bright wine that pairs well with many of the small plates. Unfortunately, the bar service is irritatingly slow. I waited 20 minutes for my first cocktail, and when my sparkling rose finally arrived, it was served in a big wine goblet instead of a champagne glass, which makes it less bubbly. Major fail.
I was surprised that Azzurra EnoTavola didn't measure up to its North Side siblings. Perhaps it will improve with time. But, for now, when you're in the mood for Italian small plates and wine, don't bother leaving Andersonville. You can get a better version of the same thing, with a distinctly gayer crowd, at Ombra. Win, win.
A zzurra EnoTavola is located at 1467 N. Milwaukee Ave.; call 773-278-5959 or visit www.azzurrachicago.com .
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