Italian Bounty at Ceres’ Table

If she could check us out from above, Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, would be pleased to know that the Chicago restaurant named after her is worthy of the honor.

Chef Guiseppe Scurato’s style is contemporary American with a definite Italian influence, and he has a special affinity with produce, using local and sustainable ingredients whenever viable.

Start your meal on the right note with the lovely “In Bloom” cocktail ($10), a light and refreshing mixture of St. Germain liqueur, prosecco, Hendrick’s gin, pressed lime and candied hibiscus flowers. Take a pass on the Cosmo Fresco ($10), a too-sweet cucumber vodka/fennel-basil syrup concoction that took the juice of half a lime to be drinkable. Because of course I drank it, right?

The Baby Artichoke Salad ($10) took me right back to Italy. That was where I first enjoyed the combination of shaved raw artichoke and Parmigiano Reggiano paired with arugula and wild mushrooms, here tossed in truffle-lemon vinaigrette. Sigh.

For the beet lover – and I know there are many of you out there – you will enjoy the salad ($10) with farmer’s market beets topped with fresh ricotta cheese, Sicilian pistachios and honey. I’m always thrilled to see a variation on the tired beet/goat cheese/walnut salad. Got to mix it up!

You will kick yourself if you don’t order the Cozze alla Marinara ($15) for the table. Gorgeous Prince Edward Island mussels in a kick-ass classic marinara with toasted sourdough for dipping. No need to stop there; we dipped pretty much everything on the table in that sauce.

Not surprisingly, Scurato’s pastas were perfectly al dente and sauced lightly in the Italian style. Light and fluffy Goat Cheese Ravioli ($13/21) were little pillows of fresh pasta filled with creamy, tangy cheese and tossed with sautéed rock shrimp, fresh peas and basil in a drizzle of tomato water.

The house-made Corzetti Pasta ($17) was joined by fava beans, asparagus, pea sprouts and sun-dried tomatoes in a Parmesan broth. Toothsome and delicious.

We all loved the Chicken Cacciatore ($20) with a twist: served on a bed of chickpea puree, the pan-roasted breast stood up to the sturdy sauce of black olives, tomatoes, peperonata and mushrooms. The fowl was juicy and tender and we fought over that sauce, too.

Less successful was the Falsomagro ($22), a bacon-wrapped Sicialian meatloaf formed around a hard-boiled egg, served with a bbq-cabernet reduction. The meat was nearly pureed – perhaps that is the Sicilian style? – and the texture was off-putting, although the garlic mashed potatoes were out of this world. Next time I’m opting for the duck breast, which I nearly grabbed off another table it looked and smelled so incredible. Live and learn.

Desserts (all priced at $6.50) were not my favorite part of the meal here; they just weren’t at the same level in terms of execution. In other words, they sounded better than they tasted. Take the Plum Crostata, for instance. The crust itself was delicious, but the plum filling had a weird bitter aftertaste. It’s saying something when I take one bite and push it away without regret.

The individual Blueberry Pie suffered from not enough sugar, and the Brownie Cake was tasty but unremarkable. However, the Peanut Butter Tart with chocolate ganache was a different story; sinfully rich and full-flavored, it was not long for this world. PB Tart, you will be missed!

Service was interesting that evening, as our waiter was on his own for the whole restaurant; apparently the other server had called in sick moments before our arrival. Luckily for him, the busboys stepped it up and helped out, so other than a slow start to the dinner, everything worked out. All’s well that ends well.

4 out of 5 stars

Ceres’ Table
4882 N. Clark
773-878-4882
www.cerestable.com