Chicago

Sabatino's Survives on Old School Italian-American Charm

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[Photographs: Joe Roy]

Located on a bustling stretch of Irving Park Road, Sabatino's is as mired in the past, with a clientele that keeps aging alongside it, as everyone says it is. When I stopped in at 6 p.m. for a Wednesday evening dinner, the first wave of early birders were already on their way out the door. Though the sun was still shining, it felt very, very late in the stale smoke scented lounge leading to the server station. In a bygone era, this might be the last stop after a night on the town, but like the rest of the laid-back patrons, we were simply straight from work, trying to beat the Lobster Night rush ($21 for a lobster tail).

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With its strolling musicians, dimly lit chandelier lighting, and tuxedoed waiters and waitresses, Sabatino's has a death grip on the Old School Italian vibe that used to signify a fancy meal and entertainment. However, with little more than hazy Rat Pack associations and Goodfellas assumptions, twenty-somethings like myself must have a hard time differentiating between a chain like Maggiano's that affects a red sauce joint and a place like Sabatino's, which has simply kept up the act for longer.

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A meal here begins with a plate of Pizza Bread (on the house), which is cheesy and heavy on the garlic in a powder sort of way. If you dig that French bread pizza "I don't know where the sauce stops and the bread begins" texture, this is for you. If not, don't worry—you won't leave hungry.

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See that dense, uniform crumb? That's a table loaf of Italian Bread (on the house), and it's specifically engineered to soak olive oil, marinara, or anything else sop-able. With a hard crust and steamy middle, it's utilitarian in the tastiest way possible.

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Most meals here come with your choice of soup and salad. First, the soups. On offer daily, the Minestrone has a canned mushiness and muted flavors. Ground Parmesan and red pepper flake help it considerably, but again, since you aren't leaving here hungry, don't feel bad for pushing it aside.

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The Stracciatella with Spinach is basically an Italian egg drop soup. The flavors are light and balanced, but the eggs themselves were cooked past coddled, which resulted in shredded, scrambled hunks instead of delicate, feathery ribbons.

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The Salad is of the romaine, sliced carrot, and shredded cabbage variety. You choose the dressing. While the bleu cheese (pictured) was thin and not very assertive, the Italian dressing had a tart, vinegary kick. Coupled with rich bleu cheese crumbles, it was a basic Italian restaurant salad of the highest order.

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Now for the main event. This was my first experience with Chicken Vesuvio ($17.95), and let's just say that the search continues. Everything from the garlic, to the oil, to the lemon juice is here, but there is no punch.

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Same goes for the Veal Saltimboca ala Romano ($21.00), which arrives to the table as a row of three well-pounded paillards. The menu claims that there are slices of prosciutto and sage here as well, but I'm not convinced.

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Lest you thought we forgot the pasta, each meal comes with your choice of noodle and sauce. The Spaghetti with Meat Sauce tastes like a spot on impersonation of Chef Boyardee meat ravioli.

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Better purely for nostalgia reasons was the Penne with Alfredo Sauce, which features the kind of creamy, cheesy sauce that begs for blackened shrimp and prom photos overhead.

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Finally comes the Baked Alaska for Two ($8.95), which is the second part in the "dinner and a show" structure at Sabatino's. The dessert is whisked with pomp from the kitchen, a lit sparkler blazing a trail through the dining room.

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Then, the lights dim, and a flammable liquor is poured on top, igniting and "baking" the Alaska. The scorched pillow is cut and plated tableside, and a generous dousing of chocolate sauce snuffs out the flame.

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The dessert itself is comprised of a vanilla ice cream center, a layer of white sponge cake, and a thin shell of just-set meringue. It tastes exactly as it sounds, and it's the perfect, far from subtle, end to a meal here.

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Even on a weeknight, dinner at Sabatino's is no abbreviated affair. Two-and-a-half hours later, we stumbled bleary eyed back into the muggy evening, the sun still stubbornly waning in the West. I have to admit that it was a bigger culture shock exiting than it was entering, with the whizzing and honking of cars a sharp jolt of modern day reality. I understand why people still come to Sabatino's, and if I'm ever again beset with that hazy, vague, "That's Amore" nostalgia, I'll be back, too.

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