I’ve had the sheer pleasure of living and eating in Chicago for two years now. Each day of my life is scheduled around food. Seriously. I am that sad person people refer to when they say “there are those who eat to live and those who live to eat.” I’m the latter. I live to chew, to taste life as much as I can, and eating is a full on sensory extravaganza. Or at least it should be.
I was fortunate to be raised by genuinely amazing cooks, in particular of the Italian variety. Both of my father’s have a talent for cuisine, albeit one of them takes all day to execute a semi-annual gourmet meal. Nonetheless, they have a feel for food. Each woman has their own specialty and touch. I have a few favorites made by each. My Mom made a home-cooked dinner almost every night growing up and I can’t remember one bad meal. Somehow through all that goodness, we all still pale in comparison to my grandma.
Nonna (Italian for Grandma) or Grammy as I so affectionately call her, is the most intuitive and efficient culinary artist I’ve ever met. She’ll work all day, grab some groceries and whip up an amazing dinner with dessert in 30-45 minutes. And she loves it. Never complains. She’ll eat a meal somewhere, like it, but find a way to make it better so she loves it. Despite living in Italy for three years, traveling around Europe and living in big cities here in the States, I’ve never had a better meal than one my grandma made. And for that, we’re all screwed. I go into a new restaurant with limited hopes and expectations. I’ve had many amazing experiences with food throughout my life and I’m grateful to have found an authentic Italian spot in Riccardo’s.
I first delighted in Riccardo’s exquisite cuisine while celebrating a mutual anniversary with dear friends during their visit to the windy city. My friend is also Italian with an awesome grandmother who makes delectable sauce, so we both enter Italian restaurants with a sense of wonder. I did some searching and found Riccardo’s quaint location in East Lincoln Park, where Clark street meets Dickens. With a very small, navy awning with yellow letters, Riccardo’s unassuming facade is warm and welcoming. As soon as I entered, I transported to a different time and place. I was back where I feel a big chunk of my heart still lives, in the land of passion and pasta: Italy.
With tall ceilings, curved architecture and large paintings on the walls, Riccardo’s is cozy and bustling, seating roughly 60 people max. There’s staff of all ages, a testament to a family run institute, many of them speaking Italian, laughing with the customers and providing knowledgable, sound advice on which amazing items from their menu to try. I’ve been back 6-7 times and I still can’t get enough. I’ve taken my very selective grandmother, mother and family members, all of which ooed and ahhed at the pure bliss entering their mouths. Can’t wait to go back.
Riccardo’s is special. It’s a splurge. When we’re aiming to save we’ll elect their tasting menu. For $33 you select a 1st, 2nd and dessert course. You’re greeted with prosecco and amazingly fresh bruschetta. Their house wines are as good as anything I had in Italy and they have a wide selection should you desire something specific. On our multiple visits, our group has enjoyed veal meatballs in osso buco sauce (remember, Italians eat everything. They value quality, natural ingredients and they honor the life they’re eating.), gnocchi with wild oxtail, fried zucchini flowers with prosciutto and mozzarella, garbanzo flour crepe with wild boar sausage and fava beans, papardella with pork cheeks in chianti sauce, vitella tonnato, beef carpaccio, spaghetti carbonara, risotto with porcini mushrooms, pork tenderloin with parmesan risotto and oven potatoes, and much, much more.
My god I am salivating as I type! I must go back immediately. Truth: I cried the first time I experienced Riccardo’s. All the elements of our dining experience were so spot on, of such high quality and I really just felt nostalgic for Europe. There’s no rush when you eat. You sip wine, laugh, savor each succulent bite and moan the entire way through. Their tiramisu is as authentic as I’ve had, as good as my dear Italian friend who labored over it lovingly for one of our last meals as residents. You walk out onto Chicago’s beautiful streets, slowly sauntering off your epic meal, just as the Italians would do.
It pains me to see people choose mediocrity. Please know that Olive Garden could not be farther from authentic Italian and most American restaurants claiming to make genuine food straight from mamma’s kitchen are bullshitting us. There are certainly spots all around the country who focus on quality of ingredients and superb execution of their chosen recipes. They’re usually family run and less easy to find, but they’re there, and they’re worth every mile you drive and every penny you spend. You have one life. Eat, drink, laugh and love well. You deserve it. Give yourself the gift.