Even as a food blogger, Italian food for me has always been synonymous with pizza and pasta. Unlike a recent trip to Greece, which changed my perception and understanding of authentic Greek cuisine, I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Italy yet. So when my good friend, Chef, and Owner Bruno Abate invited me in to his restaurant Tocco, to taste the “real deal” as he put it, I was indeed excited. Tocco is a stylish Italian restaurant nestled in the heart of Wicker Park, with a chic dining room, a lavish lounge and an extensive bar.
Bruno deliberately invited me on a weekday evening, because he said he wanted to be fully involved in my ‘real’ Italian cuisine experience, and so I could get his full attention. He also assured me prior to the menu tasting that it would not only change my idea of Italian food but also give me a preview of what Italians can do with seafood.
Bruno was not joking when he said that the food at his restaurant is the real deal. His concept and vision for the restaurant does not compromise any ounce of authenticity and he ensures that by maintaining a fully loaded pantry on site that holds all Italian imported ingredients, which they use in their food. The chefs and staff all speak Italian and are personally trained by Bruno. Not to mention that everyone who works there looks happy and proud of the food they are serving.
As I sat down and waited for Bruno to join me, I was started off with an aperitif named, The Positano; a concoction of pear vodka, Chambord and cranberry juice. An absolutely wonderful cocktail that got my appetite going.
As expected, pizza is a specialty at Tocco and regardless of the seafood I was there to try, I wasn’t going to leave without also trying the pizza. But I was a little surprised when it was served to me as an appetizer. Bruno assured me that it would be light and refreshing, which seemed like an oxymoron to me, but I was willing to test out his claim. He mentioned that their pizzas were made with the freshest of ingredients; double zero imported flour (which costs 3 times more than regular flour), fresh mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes (known as the best tomatoes in the world). He also told me that their pizzas were so light that they could be eaten as a starter. And he was right! Three slices of thin crust Marghertia pizza later, my craving was satisfied and appetite enhanced!
The next dish that came out was probably one of the best seafood dishes I have had in my life. Bruno continued to declare that the food at his restaurant was simple and the goal was to taste all the ingredients. Seeing how complex dishes are these days I didn’t know what to think of that. Especially seeing the full pressed octopus on our table (not on the menu) doused in a little tomato sauce and a single basil leaf. Seemed a little too simple to me...until I took a bite. The octopus (flown in from Spain) was so incredibly tender and chewy altogether, and its taste mystically separated from the flavors of the garlic-enriched sauce it was cooked in. With one dish, I started to understand Bruno’s culinary philosophy and leaned back to get ready for more. I hope for your sake they make this a regular menu item, because it is divine!
Then came the Branzino, once again, an unpretentious piece of fish lightly broiled in some EVOO and garlic, and served with lightly salted vegetables. Light, fresh and tasty, just as I had been promised all along.
In time, just as I was starting to crave a little spice, Chef sent out the Clams With Fregola Sarda (Saridinian Couscous,), another off menu item. The dish also had Bottarga (similar to caviar) mixed in along with garlic and olive oil. The unique and nutty flavor of the pasta combined in with the saltiness of the baby neck clams and light garlic is a combination you don’t ever want to miss. I am short on words to describe the brilliance of this dish. And when a food writer runs out of words, you know there must be something magnificent about it.
The chef also sent out smaller versions of other pastas for me to try and my favorite was the Tortelli Al Tarttufo, which was handmade spinach ricotta tortelli with black truffles in fresh cream. The dish gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “melt in your mouth.” A modest looking dish, but with grandiose taste! The other reason this dish left a mark for me was that I otherwise consciously avoid tortellini as it has never been a favorite. But now, it will be the first thing I order at Tocco from their pasta selections. I absolutely love when tastings change my pre-conceived notions.
Bruno had picked out our dessert even before we even began our tasting, and told me he wouldn’t let me leave without trying their Babba. After planning such a pleasing feast, I knew this had to be good. This traditional dessert from Naples comes a pastry dough ball soaked in rum with vanilla pastry crème, and drizzled with chocolate crème. Made in-house, Babba is just how you should be ending any Italian meal from now on.
I will be reminiscing this tasting for months to come. What is most impressive about Tocco is that the food is truly simple with each dish boasting no more than three to four ingredients. Yet, they manage to churn out around 700 different recipes at the restaurant. Nothing at Tocco is predictable or ordinary; neither the décor nor the food. My wish is to see more hidden gems like Tocco discovered and visited by foodies, so they can receive the acclaim they deserve. When food is made with such love, care and passion, it cannot go unnoticed. Tocco, grazie for such an amazing experience!
Neighborhood: Wicker Park
Address: 1266 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622
Phone: (773) 687-8895
Hours: Monday: Closed, Tues-Thurs: 5pm – 11:00pm, Fri -Sat: 5:00pm–Midnight, Sun: 5-10pm
Price: $6 - $24