Not long after you sit down to dinner at Cafe Bionda, the kitchen sends out a message. No words are spoken, but the gesture still says a lot. Instead of olive oil or butter, the bread board you receive to kick off your meal includes a steaming hot bowl of tomato sauce, the top dusted with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. To me, it's the restaurant's way of saying, Hey, you came for the carbs and red sauce, right? Might as well get at it.
The sauce—thick, bright, and savory at once—was a promising indication of things to come.
Nestled along the borderlands between the South Loop and Chinatown, Cafe Bionda serves a menu of comforting and familiar Italian fare. Butcher paper covers the tabletops in the cozy dining room, which lies adjacent to the dark-wood bar that greets you on your way in. Under the menu heading "Macaroni," you'll find several expected dishes like rigatoni alla vodka, spaghetti and meatballs, and linguine vongola, but also several others that sound more tempting and complex. The pasta dishes are all a little pricey, but the portions are substantial; you're basically buying today's dinner and tomorrow's lunch.
I gravitated first toward the orecchiette sausage ($15), with its promise of spicy Italian sausage, chile, rapini, and garlic. The orecchiette noodles were cooked to thick and fluffy perfection, somewhat single-handedly carrying this dish to a happy place. The remaining elements felt subdued. The sausage, while certainly spiked with herbs and heat, wasn't singing the high notes I had hoped for; there were inklings of fennel, parsley, and the like, but they never quite registered loud and clear. The rapini is incorporated in the form of thinly chopped stalks, making it difficult for its telltale earthy, bitter punch to come through.
The flavors, and especially the textures, took a turn for the better with Bionda's calamari fra diavolo ($18). A bed of springy linguine noodles supported a generous helping of tender, just-right calamari—both rings and little clusters of tentacles. The red pepper-laced white wine sauce was pleasingly subtle, allowing the freshness of the calamari to take center stage.
The cavatelli al forno ($18), a special available on Tuesdays, took the prize for heartiest dish and best noodles. As the name suggests, the red-sauce-tossed pasta is oven-baked in its bowl, so the blanket of cheese on top can get all melty. According to the menu, the hand-rolled, finger-length cavatelli noodles are housemade, although my server acknowledged that the "house" in question is typically but not always the restaurant. I gathered from that comment that the cavatelli are not mass market noodles, but occasionally come from a local source when the kitchen isn't making them itself. Whatever their provenance, the cavatelli are great—robust, a touch doughy, and exceedingly comforting.
The topping of mozzarella loses its lusciousness after awhile, as hot cheese turned cold tends to do. For that reason, you want to eat fast. But the cavatelli beg to be savored slowly. File this dilemma under "Good Problems to Have."