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[Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

Quartino is a juggernaut of a restaurant. Volume is the name of the game at this expansive two-floor pizzeria/wine bar/bistro; and Quartino plays the game like a pro, filling its hundreds of close-knit seats nightly with diners hungry for inexpensive Italian small plates and thirsty for value vino (there are, in fact, some remarkably good wines for their prices available by the 1/4-, 1/2- and 1-liter carafe). For the most part, the restaurant runs like a well-olive-oiled machine, thanks to a speedy, precise kitchen and a light infantry of servers and bussers. They manage to keep scores of patrons happy and, thus, the mood in dining rooms lively and festive. (Be warned: the place gets loud.) The fact that the kitchen can turn out such consistently good food in rapid fire is perhaps Quartino's most astounding feat.

On top of that, you can eat vegetarian at Quartino, which is part of the Gibsons Restaurant Group, and never feel like you've been shortchanged by forgoing the meat and seafood options.

The salads are a great way to kick off a veggie-friendly meal. The romaine hearts with shaved grana padana cheese, honey, lemon, and extra virgin olive oil ($6.75) is simple and light, well suited for the season. The little bit of honey in the dressing helps to balance the salty shavings of hard Italian cheese.

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The baby spinach salad ($6.75) with sliced pears, walnuts, and ricotta salata is earthier and more robust. It demonstrates that a simple salad need not be boring, so long as the ingredients are fresh, flavorful, and complement one other well.

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Sadly, though, Quartino's white bean and garlic spread ($4.75)—a longtime favorite of mine—has been a letdown on recent visits. The kitchen hasn't been its usual clockwork-consistent self when it comes to this small-plate item. At its best, the white bean spread was smooth and creamy and shot through with garlic and rosemary. Lately, it's been bland. Here's hoping it returns to its former glory.

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On the other hand, the Pugliese pizza, a steal at $11, is spot-on good every time I order it. The toppings of savory-sweet onion and smoked provolone cheese make an inspired pair. Quartino's pizzas sport thin yet spongy crusts, with a light crispy crunch to the exterior and a slight sourdough-like flavor. The pizza makers at Quartino appear to favor baking pies to a medium-rare doneness, pulling them off the fire before acquiring much in the way of char. Generally I like a bit of that carbon-kiss, but I think in the case of Quartino's house dough recipe, it is at its best when lightly cooked. It certainly makes braving the dinner crowd for a table well worth it.

Quartino

626 North State Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map)
312-698-5000
quartinochicago.com

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