Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
When you think of the Willis Tower, you're probably thinking of the tourist-filled Skydeck on the 103rd floor, where you can get some insane views of Chicago. But it is, after all, an office building. While people are coming to play up on the 103rd floor, most of the building's citizens are busy working, and we busy office bees all need to eat sometime.
Venice Cafe is conveniently located on the lower floor of the Willis Tower. You'll need to enter on the east side of the building (the south entrance is reserved for Skydeck patrons). By the time you're down there, you'll feel like you're part of a secret in-the-know club.
If the name didn't give it away, Venice Cafe is an Italian joint known for pizza and pasta. While they serve slices of pizza (New York-style and deep-dish), steer towards their sausage calzone ($5.75). The exterior is crackly and crisp while the interior is filled with the familiar flavor of salty, fennel-heavy Italian sausage and rich melted mozzarella. While it appears thick, the ratio of bread to filling is pretty even and neither overwhelms the other. The marinara is a must, and its sharp sweet acidity just makes all the ingredients taste that much better.
Every day there's an array of specials, and about once a month (always on a Friday) you can get penne in lobster cream sauce with shrimp and crab ($7.49).
The penne is cooked to al-dente (they have it down to an amazing science), and it comes coated in a rich creamy lobster-flavored sauce. The sauce isn't super lobstery, but the flavor is definitely there, and the pasta comes adorned with a surprisingly generous amount of shrimp and chopped clams. The one drawback is the imitation crabmeat. By the time you get the pasta, the crabmeat has shredded into strings and doesn't do too much for flavor.
One of the items that most people get excited about is the garlic roll that comes with every order of pasta. It's puffy, oily, flecked with dried garlic and salt, and serves as a perfect sponge for any extra sauce.
I have a dirty confession to make: Even after spending pretty much all of my 30 years in and around Chicago, I still haven't been up to the Skydeck. I know, I'm a terrible, horrible, person. So terrible.
233 S. Wacker Drive, Chicago IL 60606 (map)
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