I had the pleasure of dining at Coco Pazzo in the North River area of Chicago. This restaurant epitomizes the definition of classic, but modern.
Chicago offers many Italian restaurants, but among the best is Coco Pazzo. It serves Tuscan inspired cuisine using only the freshest of ingredients. If you were not sitting in the midst of Chicago's design section you would think that the kitchen ran out the back door to pick your vegetables.
I had the pleasure of dining with Coco Pazzo's publicist. The owner Jack Weiss was present and greeting each guest with the charm and warmth of someone who truly embraces the joy of Italian dining. The executive chef Chris Macchia brings a fresh, light hand to Italian classics.
They gave me a tour of the open, lofty space with exposed beams. Located center behind the bar is the wood burning stove. I loved the atmosphere. The space was open and warm with wood floors. There are deep blue curtains hung between the beams that add a homeyness to the atmosphere and allows for private dining without breaking up the large room. The diner is greeted by the classic Italian buffet of verdura mista and a house cured prosciutto.
Jack and Chris work together to create Tuscan style seasonal menus. The focus is on the freshest ingredients available, meaning that almost everything is grown within a day's drive. The pastas and breads are all made in house, every day. There is an extensive Italian wine list developed by Tamra Weiss. Unique and often overlooked wines in the US are included and very reasonably priced. Over 20 varieties of wines are avaialable by the glass.
I was given the opportunity to taste several dishes during my evening at Coco Pazzo. The Firori di Zucca is the epitome of Chris' fresh take on Italian classics. It is zucchini blossoms filled with chopped summer vegetables. Unlike everywhere else, Chris does not fry the blossom. He told me that this destroys the delecate flavors of the blossom. Instead he serves fried zucchini next to the blossom, drizzled with pesto Genevese. The blossom was light and fresh with the slightly crisp vegetables. The zucchini provided the familiar fried flavors. A masterful reinvention of a classic dish.
The Funghi Arrosto appetizer is a healthy portion of oyster mushrooms roasted in the the wood burning oven with pancetta. They are served over shredded radicchio. It is woodsy, robust flavors are delicious. The bittersweet flavor of the radicchio makes a fantastic pairing.
The risotto of the day was marvelous. Perfectly cooked, al dente rice that was not too mushy, too hard, too dry, or too wet. If that seems hard to understand it can be. Something as simple as risotto can be one of the hardest dishes to get right, and here it is done exactly right. Coco Pazzo's risotto was voted the best by Chicago Magazine.
The Rigatoni alla Buttera is country comfort food. The pasta is served with sausage, tomatoes, peas, parmesan, and cream. Let me be honest and say that I don't like peas. I have found peas that I not only enjoyed, but now crave. Thank you Chris for opening a new world for me.
I do love mushrooms. The Mezzalune Funghetto were just plain yummy. The half moon pasta shapes are filled with mushrooms, speck, and cheese. The only thing that could make this dish better was having more of it.
The Branzino al Forno is a whole Mediterranean sea bass that is wood roasted. Coco Pazzo has revived the classic tradition of table side service. The branzino is brought out whole and served to you. This perfect summer fish dish is a Coco Pazzo classic. Just as with the risotto, this simple fish dish can reveal the chef's flaws if not done properly. No worries here. The firm flesh and mild flavors swim along your taste buds without being smothered in extra ingredients.
Chris offered to serve more samples from the menu, but unfortunately I did not wear my stretchy, pig-out pants. I would like to to have tried the duck. I plan to order it the next time I go to Coco Pazzo. I am assured that there is always a duck dish on the menu.
Hours--Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday
Dinner: 5:30-10:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5-10 p.m., Sunday
Recommended Dress: Business casual
Location: 300 W Hubbard, Chicago, IL 60654
Parking: Paid Lot, Street Parking Difficult, and Valet ($12)
What does "Coco Pazzo" mean? Crazy chef