Chicago has a lot of Italian restaurants to choose from, and I’m always excited to try a new one. I’d heard of Spiaggia (980 N. Michigan Ave.), which is considered one of Chicago’s best Italian restaurants, but it didn’t make my “must-try” list considering an entrée would set me back $30 to $50. However, when some family friends suggested we visit Café Spiaggia, the restaurant’s more college budget-friendly version located right next door, I was all in.
While Spiaggia focuses on fine dining and innovative takes on Italian dishes, Café Spiaggia features more traditional, rustic Italian cooking. Café Spiaggia’s menu prices still make it more of a special-occasion spot, but it’s definitely more accessible than the original restaurant, with the average price of an entrée ranging from $15 to $30.
Although it’s in a lower price range, Café Spiaggia still provides a fine dining experience. The dining room is small and intimate without feeling crowded, and it is softly lit with rustic chandeliers and windows overlooking Michigan Avenue. The wait staff is attentive and informative about the menu.
To start, we split a charcuterie plate ($18 small, $30 large), a selection of fresh meats and cheese served with grilled bread. The meats were piled high on a board that was about two feet long. We ordered the large to share with three people, but ended up passing it around the table of six and I still had leftovers to take home.
The meats included coppa, finocchiona, soppressata and bresaola, each with a different flavor and texture. My favorite was the finocchiona, a typical Tuscan salami that has a peppery taste due to the fennel in it.
The board also featured a cheese of the day, a soft brie, a pool of honey and pears soaked in vinegar. The different combinations of sweet and savory items made for a great appetizer.
Whenever I see gnocchi on a menu, it takes a lot to sway me from ordering it. If you have had the pleasure of trying it in Rome, you know the comfort the dense pillows of pasta can bring. Café Spiaggia’s version featured a wild boar ragu, parmigiano reggiano and basil ($17). The ragu had a rich, fatty flavor. It tasted like it took three days to make and was well balanced by the sharp, salty parmigiano.
The pasta was just the right portion size after the charcuterie plate. However, the pasta section of the menu is listed as “small pasta” and I would definitely recommend ordering something to share to start. The price reflects the quality of ingredients and preparation, but you may have to spend a bit more to get a complete meal.
Our also table tried the crispy cauliflower with paprika aioli and parsley ($13) and the Treviso salad with roasted brussels sprouts, hazelnuts and pecorino Romano ($12), both of which had a good balance of flavors and textures. The salad was my favorite because of the crunchy toasted hazelnuts and its light, refreshing dressing.
No Italian dining experience would be complete without gelato. The dessert menu offered three scoops for $9 or one for $4. While tempted by combinations such as honey cashew, sugar cookie and meyer lemon, I stuck with the basics and ordered dark chocolate sea salt. The flecks of sea salt brought out the dark chocolate flavor, which was intense without being bitter.
Café Spiaggia’s one-page menu is a good example of focusing on fewer, but higher quality dishes. I got the feeling that whatever I ordered, it would be delicious. If you’re looking for a fine dining experience and a meal that focuses on traditional Italian dishes, give it a try.