If you plan on eating at the uber hot RPM Italian in Chicago’s River North area, you had best get that reservation now.
Even with a table in your name, you will most likely wait. And the bar scene, judging from a recent mid-weekday night, is incendiary. This is definitely a see-and-be-seen place.
Belly Up to the Bar
So resign yourself to a wait, and grab one of the yummy cocktails that they’re pouring at the bar, assuming you can wiggle your way to it. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll catch site of the gorgeous Bill Rancic glad-handing his way around the restaurant. The man has some serious wattage for a reality TV personality. Those teeth! Blinding! We saw him happily pose for no fewer than 10 cell phone pix with excited customers.
The restaurant space, once home to Lettuce Entertain You’s Ben Pao, has been transformed into a sleek, cosmopolitan, happening room. Lots of black and white, very cool lighting and comfy booths. This is of the new LEYE generation, and the restaurant is named for the partnership of the Rancics (Guiliana and Bill), chef Doug Psaltis and the Melman progeny (RJ, Jerrod and Molly).
Parade of Small Plates
There are plenty of small plates to share and get you started, followed by house-made pastas and risotto, and then a few Italian entrée classics, plus grilled meats and fish. Since we waited half an hour for our reservation, the manager thoughtfully sent over the tasty Roasted Beets (with blood orange and pistachios, $8) and an order of Fritto Misto ($12), deftly fried calamari, shrimp, asparagus and lemon slices in a light and crispy batter (with a lemony aioli sauce for dipping), gratis. Good move.
We were in a much better mood after that and had time to peruse the menu, which is of the type where pretty much everything sounds delish. Plus we were starving.
A Crudo of Mediterranean Sea Bass ($9.50) consisted of pristinely fresh little piles of raw sea bass, drizzled with EVOO and lemon juice, garnished with olives and sprigs of fennel. So tasty and light.
The Prime Beef Meatballs ($9), which come three to an order in a small copper pan, were doused with red sauce and sprinkled with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese. Our server pushed them, hard, and they were perfectly pleasant, but certainly not in the ethereal category. These were big and meaty. The balls we preferred (believe me, jokes were made at the table) were the Arancini, crispy on the outside, with meltingly good risotto and fontina inside.
You can pass on the meh Lobster Caprese ($16), although it made for a beautiful presentation. Lobster does not belong with the caprese; the texture was a weird match. Opt instead for the refreshing Guiliana’s Italian Salad ($11), loaded with fresh and pickled veggies, salami, and cheese, all tossed in a sprightly dressing.
We went 2 for 3 with pastas. The Strozzapretti ($10), house made like all the others, had a lovely al dente feel, but the arugula pesto was far too salty. The Duck Agnolotti ($13) was terrific, paired with roasted Mission figs, bright green Brussels sprout leaves and a light buttery sauce.
The Wild Boar Sausage ($13) pasta gets its own paragraph. Al dente raddiatore pasta tossed with the sausage, cavolo nero (dinosaur kale), Pecorino cheese and fennel pollen: It was like a mouthful of Tuscany. Mmmmmm.
Lemon Sole Oreganata ($24) was perfectly serviceable but nothing to get excited about. If we had had more room in our tummies (or our wallets) I might have opted for the Bistecca Fiorentina, but it’s super pricey at $118 for two people. We were fine with just appetizers and pastas.
Dessert brought another giant ball to the table: a Hazelnut Tartufo ($8), an enormous portion of hazelnut gelato dipped in dark chocolate and served with a big knife to cut it in quarters. This is definitely for sharing. The Roasted Figs with Mascarpone Cream ($8) was much lighter but equally tasty.
True confessions: I expected to write off the food here, given the restaurant’s absurd level of hotness. But surprisingly, it was really quite good. I’ll definitely be back.
4 out of 5 stars (A-)
52 W. Illinois St.
Photo Credit: Anjali Pinto