“Oh, it has been ages since I’ve been,” said two different friends on two different occasions about dining at Café Spiaggia. It has been eons for me, too. Seems like the restaurant has fallen off the radar for many people, and having an above-street-level presence doesn’t make it easily come to mind, either. But in the last month I have had dinner at Café Spiaggia twice, and am not going to let years pass before I visit again.
Tony Mantuano, who I and my friend spotted dining at one of the tables while on my second visit, has clearly not skipped a beat over the years, and continues to deftly create dishes that pull from traditional Italian roots while incorporating local flavors. His chef de cuisine and staff expertly exhibit their skills in coaxing maximum flavor from a minimal number of superb ingredients while also turning out some of the city’s best handmade pasta. An assortment of snacks (cicchetti), small plates (piattini), and main course paste dominate the café’s menu. A small, carefully edited list of wines by the glass (in the $14 to $20 range) draws from a variety of Italian regions.
A baby arugula salad with Capriole Farm goat cheese tossed with balsamic and a generous sprinkling of sea salt made for an agreeable starter. On my earlier visit with my other friend, we liked the meaty house-cured sardines with caper almond pesto on crunchy raisin fennel bread.
The impossibly light gnocchi paired with a perfectly tomato-y boar ragù topped with Parmigiano Reggiano was as good as what I’ve eaten in Italy, and is often found on the menu. On both occasions, each of my friends happened to order this dish, and each time, not one morsel was left on the plate. Chunks of pork cheek tossed with thin ribbons of pappardelle (shown above) and a rich yet restrained meaty sauce yielded bites so tender that I ordered this dish both times. If it’s not already, it should be regularly on the menu. If you are inclined to try a pasta with truffles, then rush over while it is in season. But be prepared to shell out $95 for the experience. It would be an experience I’d like to have some day, but for now, I’m happy with a great glass of wine and any of the other creative dishes put in front of me.
980 North Michigan Avenue