When I was a college student, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Florence, Italy. Besides history and art and the subtleties of i gesti Italiani, I got to closely study Tuscan cuisine. Which is a way of saying I ate like crazy. And it was during that frenzy of educational eating that I learned Italian food had far more breadth and depth than I had previously imagined. I was knocking back crostini smeared with fagioli bianchi and fegato, and cleaning out bowls of ribollita and pappa al pomodoro. Money in my pocket meant bistecca or branzino. These beautiful Tuscans, I thought, these bean-eaters, could have left the pasta noodle entirely in the hands of their countrymen and still have made a marvelous impact on Italian cuisine.
Luckily, that's not what they did.
And Chicago's Coco Pazzo is a superb—and conveniently local—reminder of how great Tuscany's contribution has been to the world of Italian pasta. The River North mainstay celebrated its 20th anniversary in February. Not every restaurant ages gracefully, but Coco Pazzo seems to have stayed classy over two decades, amid changes in chefs and in diners' prevailing tastes, by remaining true to the honest flavors and rich tradition of Tuscan food.
Making many of its pasta noodles in-house is a major part of Coco Pazzo's commitment to authenticity. The risk in doing that is the potential for inconsistency. But when things go right, a fresh homemade pasta noodle simply crushes its dried, mass-produced counterpart in terms of flavor, sauce retention and texture.
On a recent visit, the cappellacci di patate ($17/$13 small order) illustrated the technical pitfalls of crafting your own noodles in house. The mitre-shaped and potato-filled cappellacci arrived noticeably undercooked. Areas where the noodle was folded onto itself retained a bit of that slightly gritty, raw-dough texture. The chunks of roasted squash that accompanied the noodles were expertly cooked, but the entire dish seemed too starchy when you factored in the potato filling and dense noodles.
That's the last of the bad news. Because unlike the cappellacci, the tagliolini neri ($19/$14 small order)—a squid-ink pasta served with crab, leeks, cherry tomatoes, breadcrumbs, and chile oil—were perfectly cooked, showing that a thicker pasta noodle can be hearty without being heavy. The unmistakable perfume of fresh crab along with the heat from the chile oil added both depth and brightness to this delicious and complex dish.
The elegant strands of the homemade tagliatelle ai funghi ($17/$13 small order) had also been handled with care. Roasted mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, pancetta, and chestnuts round out this dish with earthy flavors and a pleasing mix of textures. These ingredients cling to the springy, toothsome tagliatelle like iron filings to a magnet; gathering a winning bite is as easy as sticking your fork into the tangle and giving it a few quick spins.