Ever since I had my first meal at Cibo Matto in the Wit hotel, I committed the name Todd Stein to memory. He was heading up the kitchen when the sleek Italian restaurant launched back in the second half of 2009, being wooed back to his old stomping grounds after stints in Las Vegas and Minneapolis (Stein had formerly been at MK). I was hardly the only one to recognize the talent he displayed at Cibo Matto, and soon enough Stein was scooped by The Florentine, another newly opened, within-a-downtown-hotel Italian restaurant. Stein now heads up Piccolo Sogno Due, the very new sibling restaurant to Chef Tony Priolo's popular Italian spot on West Grand Avenue. Perhaps now that he's diverged from the hotel scene and is employed by a kindred spirit like Priolo, Stein will have reason to stay put awhile. I hope so, because his noodle work is currently in top form, and I'd hate to see him go even a day without a venue.
I get the sense that two chefs have had lots of friendly dialogue thus far, evidenced by the housemade tortelli (appetizer $12/main $16). To me it reads as Stein's meditation on Priolo's Ravioli "Piccolo Sogno," presented at the eponymous restaurant with a four-cheese filling, pine nuts, butter, Marsala glaze, and Parmesan shavings. At Due, Stein's tortelli are stuffed with parmesan and ricotta, pistachios replace pine nuts, and a drizzle of housemade saba in lieu of the wine glaze.
The tortelli are exceptionally light. If the filling favors one cheese, it's the ricotta—surely a deliberate choice to flaunt its textural heroics. It's so fluffy and gentle on the palate, I'd happily swim laps in the stuff. Then there are Steins pistachios, which are are better than yours and mine. I got none of the bitter chemical bite the nut can sometimes display. Heat-softened and nutty, the pistachios provide ample counter weight to the feathery noodles and buoyant cheese. The shavings of parm on top are like shakes of the best salt.
Although Stein often credits a visit to Bologna as a formative moment for him as a chef, his repertoire of Italian cooking is by no means confined to one regional cuisine. For instance, his scialatielli (appetizer $13/main $17)—traditionally a Neopolitan noodle whose dough is typically made with milk—are as much a revelation for their presence and heft as the tortelli are for their pillowy grace.
The scialatielli won't be winning any pageants, but these knobby, doughy handmade delights have plenty of inner beauty. They're combined with tender monkfish, garlic, fragrant olive oil, and a garnish of marjoram. That last item is a bold inclusion; with its unusual herbal notes, the marjoram either strikes a harmonious chord with you or it doesn't. I liked it. It was the kind of flourish that I think will come to define what's unique about Due. All the elements are tied together with a decadent tomato sauce studded with crushed skin-on tomatoes just bursting with sweetness and bright acid.
The two dishes could scarcely be more different—one is light and airy, the other is saucy and bold—yet the unifying trait, apart from their both having sprung from the same chef's mind, is the care taken to craft the housemade noodles. Long live 'em.