Italy certainly provided me with some memorable, if random, food moments. The cannolli—the one of legends—that I had stumbled upon at a bakery in Palermo. Sharing tables with other margherita lovers at Da Michele's in Napoli. Standing and sipping espresso in the late afternoon of anyday. One that I missed, however, was the concept of cicchetti.
Largely a Venetian thing, cicchetti are essentially Italian tapas, small shared fare to linger over, preferably with a glass of white wine. However, if Venice is not in your immediate future, you can find a nice rendering of the concept right here in Chicago, at Ombra.
Start with the quintessential buffalo mozzarella ($8), served here as an edible representation of the Italian flag, with both sundried and basil pestos. The cheese has a very good, not-too-soft texture. The basil pesto is excellent, full of garlic and love. The sundried tomato pesto has some tang to it, and a bit of sweetness.
The deviled eggs tonnato ($5) are a great way to wake up the palate. The eggs, while flavorful, are pretty benign next to the excellent tuna caper sauce they sit atop. A healthy dose of olive oil adds some wonderful fruitiness that manages to shine through the pungency of the tuna and the saltiness of the capers.
Sheep's milk ricotta ($7) features a heaping helping of ricotta that is pleasantly saltier than most. This is then topped with fava beans, lemon zest, and walnuts. The fava beans add some color and a bit of texture. The lemon zest provides some good zing, and the walnuts add some great texture. It feels like this would all work as a bruschetta, but it is good just like this, too. There's also some mint in here that comes in at the end like a going away present—very nice touch.
Smoked trout ($6) was the most unexpected dish, appearance wise. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting, but what I got was something that looks like creamy, coarsely chopped cole slaw. What it actually is is smoked trout with celery root, horseradish aioli, and chives. Great smoky flavor pervades and works well with the trout. The aioli is creamy and smooth, not overdone, and a bit of the horseradish comes through on the back end. The chives add a fresh, herbaceous layer to it all.
If you weren't looking at the black interior of the arancini neri ($7), you could easily mistake these for just very good fried rice balls. Nothing about them screams squid ink except that telltale color, but they are nice and crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside, then topped with a very good marinara.
The stuffed cabbage rolls ($7) are one of the specialties of the house. Stuffed with pancetta ragu and tomato, they are tiny, even delicate in stature. The sauce is rich and full-bodied, and the rolls are pleasantly crisp on the outside. I found the rolls themselves to be a bit under-stuffed for my liking. Simple, but maybe a bit too simple.
The place itself is date-night-lit and has a nice, long bar up front and plenty of booth seating with old Italian newspapers and leather-backed booths, which lend it a spaghetti western vibe. In addition to the several Italian wines and beers, they also make their own limoncello, which is just cool. And while the food menu is not overly long, it does take a while (and a bit of translation) to wade through. Like the canals of Venice, it's probably best to bring a couple friends and explore as many as possible.
Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.
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