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[Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

Here's a new word I learned that I hope doesn't catch on: fromscratch. You know, kind of like "from scratch," only said in more of a hurry? I came across this term on the website of Siena Tavern, the sprawling collaboration between the Dine|Amic Group (Bull & Bear, Public House) and chef Fabio Viviani (Cafe Firenze, Top Chef season five), which recently opened in a 10,000-square-foot space in River North. My best guess is the proprietors (surely with some marketing folks' involvement) un-pounded a Twitter hashtag to coin this...adjective? Adverb? Who knows. The writer in me laments such battery of his beloved language. But I'd later gather from my visit to Siena Tavern that this very 21st century neologism does at least serve as a kind of shorthand to describe what the place is trying to accomplish. Fromscratch food is this restaurant's thing; many of the ingredients on the heavily Italian-leaning menu, and notably all of the pastas, are made in-house. And for that level of dedication to its craft I always applaud a new restaurant.

The care taken constructing the pastas is evident in the gnocchi ($16) with truffle cream, flakes of fried sage, and crispy pancetta. Top Chef devotees will recall that Viviani has long prided himself on his pillowy gnocchi, so now that I was faced with the opportunity to try them—even though as a foodstuff I'm not sure they qualify as noodles—I couldn't resist and decided to make an exception. (The server made a pretty hard sell, to boot.) But any debate over whether these little potato-based nuggets are dumplings or noodles or something uniquely their own melts away fast once you start eating. Whatever they are, they're mighty good. Texturally, the gnocchi have body without excessive weight—a whipped, fluffy structure with just the right amount of sticky, starchy bite. I was equally drawn to the menu's offer of fried sage, and I would have been doubly happy if the dish had been sprinkled with double the sage. But the kitchen was thankfully generous with the chewy, smoky pancetta and rich truffle cream sauce, which lent the dish all sorts of additional textural and aromatic intricacies. I'd be curious to see how breadcrumbs influenced this dish, so long as they didn't divert too much attention away from the lovely puffs of gnocchi.

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It could just be a symptom of the season, but, based off their menu descriptions, many of the debut pasta dishes at Siena Tavern promise to be robust, whether by the inclusion of cream, meat, or cheese. Not a complaint so much as an observation, especially since this approach has yielded the delicious short rib ravioli ($17) with roasted porcini mushrooms and taleggio. I was told the short rib undergoes a long braise before becoming ravioli filling, and its big, meaty flavor certainly comes through clearly. But it appears the meat also gets mashed into a dryish paste, presumably so it can be more easily spooned or piped out onto the sheets of pasta dough. The flavors all worked very well together, and the noodles themselves were nicely al dente, but I couldn't help but think that if some of the short rib's natural sinew and juiciness could have somehow been maintained, then this dish would have been that much more of a knockout.

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On to the spaghetti carbonara ($15) with house smoked bacon and black pepper, topped with a disc of crispy parmesan. Carbonara is one of those benchmark dishes that, in my eyes, prove whether a restaurant is really serious about its pastas. Last year I lavished praise on Riccardo Trattoria's, but at Siena Tavern my old favorite has met its match.

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First off, Siena's spaghetti reminded me of NellcĂ´te's: thick, springy, structured, and surprisingly toothsome. The black pepper somehow anointed and pervaded the dish like a spice always should. The sauce was taut and creamy but not overly rich or eggy. And the bacon, being bacon, was a delightful element, as well.

In all cases, the noodles (and gnocchi) rightly felt like the highlights of each dish. I'm a fan of that. Must be thanks to Siena Tavern's commitment to making them (cringe) fromscratch.

Siena Tavern

51 West Kinzie Street, Chicago, IL 60654 (map)
312-595-1322
sienatavern.com

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