It’s the eternal question for a carb lover: Which is better, fresh pasta or dried? The answer, of course, is whichever one is in front of you. Ideally, each may serve as delicious starchy conveyances of judiciously applied sauce. Dried pasta, which is built to last with flour and water, can stand up to a more substantial topping, while fresh pasta, made with flour and egg, is a bit more ethereal, requires less cooking time, and calls for a lighter sauce.
A number of Chicago restaurants are making a name for themselves with their take on fresh pasta, often sourcing ingredients locally. So the next time you get a yen to carbo load — or just remember that it’s winter and no one is going to see you in a bathing suit for at least six months and you deserve something soul satisfying and unquestionably tasty — head to one of the following and get your pasta on.
Owners Aldo Zaninotto and Cameron Grant are all about bringing joy to their customers at Logan Square’s Animale and fresh pasta plays a very big part. It started at their original restaurant, the fabulous Osteria Langhe, with chef Grant’s luscious “plin,” small hand-pinched, La Tur cheese-filled ravioli tossed with butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and fresh thyme, consumed in mass quantities whenever possible. “We chose to make pasta in-house because the pasta I learned to make in Italy is magical,” says the Scottish-born Grant. The flour they use is 100 percent Italian, which is “harder to find than you think,” laughs Grant. “A large percentage of ‘Italian’ flour is grown in Canada, which is hilarious when you think of wheat being grown in Canada, milled in Italy, and sold in the U.S., but understandable since Italy as a country is very small. And they use a lot of flour!”
Must-Try Pastas: At Osteria Langhe, that gorgeous Plin ($16), or the Tajarin ($19) with Northern meat ragu and grana padano cheese; at Animale, choose pasta by weight, type (gnocchi, pappardelle, or cavatappi) and sauce (pesto Alfredo, rosemary cream and breadcrumbs, white puttanesca, red sauce and meatballs, roasted winter veggies and fontina).
Animale, 1904 N. Western Ave., Chicago, 872-315-3912
Osteria Langhe, 2824 W. Armitage, Chicago, 773-661-1582
Everything’s coming up pasta at executive chef/owner Joe Frillman’s Logan Square spot, which opened in 2017. It’s literally all in the family here, with artwork by sister Carrie Frillman adorning the walls, and vegetables sourced largely from Frillman Farms, run by brother Tim Frillman. The spectacular pasta here is all made by hand, from scratch, every day. “For the type of casual restaurant we run, fresh pasta takes much less time to cook, so this allows us to have a menu we can execute quickly,” says Frillman. He’s sourcing some flour from Midwestern farms and also shipping in milled product from Italy, which he combines with organic local eggs. “Our record day for number of pastas sold was 227 orders and every one of them is handmade by one guy, Wilson,” Frillman tells us. “When you consider that our agnolotti has 20 pieces in each dish, or that the tortellini has 16 … he’s hand-making an incredible amount of pasta!”
Must-Try Pastas: Agnolotti ($17) with beets, dill, and smoked trout roe; Whole Wheat Tagliatelle ($18) with walnuts and fava leaf pesto; Tajarin with Asparagus, mint, and chicken cracklings ($15).
Daisies, 2523 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, 773-661-1671
The Chicago outpost of this cavernous Italian food hall doesn’t fool around: All of Eataly’s pastaioli (pastamakers) have been trained by Egidio Michelis, a third-generation Piemontese pasta maker. The pasta flour is imported from Italy, of course, but the eggs come from Midwestern chickens fed a diet of organic vegetables. Here, pasta making is a spectator sport; you can often watch the pastaioli kneading, rolling, cutting, and shaping the pasta by hand behind the counter, which then appear in a profusion of shapes and colors (tinged with squid ink, fresh spinach, tomato, or the like). You can purchase fresh pasta to take home, but don’t miss the opportunity to try it Eataly-style at one of their in-store restaurants, La Pizza & La Pasta.
Must-Try Pastas: Ravioli di Zucca ($24), butternut squash and sweet potato-filled pasta with truffle butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano; Fettucine al Nero ($21), squid ink pasta with calamari, tomato, capers, lemon, and parsley; or Spaghetti alla Chitarra ($17), house-made string pasta with basil pesto, fingerling potatoes, and green beans.
Eataly, 43 E. Ohio St., Chicago, 312-521-8700
Chef Zach Walrath is quick to give credit where credit is due when talking about The Florentine’s fresh pasta: “We have a cook that we call the ‘Pasta Lady.’ Her name is Mayra and she has been making pasta for years. We don’t use any fancy machine or techniques, just simple ingredients and her hands. She makes it look easy — a quart of this, a scoop of that, and next thing you know the dough is ready!” They use a small pasta sheeter for the longer noodles (linguine, papardelle), and they always have gnocchi and a stuffed pasta on the menu, be it tortellini or ravioli.
Must-Try Pastas: Rigatoni ($25) with roasted cauliflower, spicy sopressata, cherry tomoatoes, basil, and pecorino cheese; Ravioli ($26) filled with wild mushrooms and taleggio cheese, leeks, spinach, porcini broth, and pine nuts; Butternut Squash Gnocchi ($26) with prosciutto, sage, ricotta salata, and brown butter.
The Florentine, 151 W. Adams St., Chicago, 312-660-8866
It’s starting to feel a little like Logan Square is the epicenter of the very particular alchemy of flour and eggs combining to make magic. Consider Giant, chef/owner Jason Vincent’s stellar place on West Armitage, where they’re popping out plate after plate of tender fresh pasta. “I think the coolest thing about our pasta is that I started smashing eggs and flour together 10 years ago and I have only come up with one recipe,” shares Vincent. “Making pasta is such a fulfilling process and the last thing I would ever want to do is rush [it]. So, you let the pasta lead. New recipes will come, but I can only wait for it. No rush.” And trust me, it’s worth the wait.
Must-Try Pastas: Cheese-filled “Sortallini” ($16) with guanciale, basil-tomato sauce, and pine nuts; Saffron Tagliatelle ($19) with king crab and chili butter; and Radiatore ($16) with home-style meat sauce (says Vincent, “It’s just like the quick sauce that you’d make at home with ground beef and jarred tomato sauce but we ‘chef it up’ a little.”).
Giant, 3209 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, 773-252-0997
Hot off her 2017 James Beard Foundation Award for “Best Chef: Great Lakes,” chef/partner Sarah Grueneberg isn’t resting on her laurels — she’s making pasta. Each week, the Monteverde pastaficio is turning out 40 to 50 pounds of pasta from Mulino Mariano flour, imported from Italy. “Our dedication to pasta is part of the DNA at Monteverde,” says Grueneberg. “In particular, the pastas that we make to order, which are rolled and filled to order, set our pasta program [apart] from others around the country. The eggs we use from a local Illinois farm are super special. The yolks are super rich … Plus, I love our team of women who are dedicated to making our pasta throughout the day and during service.”
Must-Try Pastas: Wok-Fried Arrabbiata ($17), black and white tagliolini with ground Texas Gulf shrimp and garlic hot pepper oil; Tortelloni di Zucca ($16), pumpkin-filled with mostarda, sage, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pumpkin seeds, and apple balsamico. (Note: Grueneberg’s famous Cacio Whey Pepe ($14) is a stunner and should not be missed, but it is made with dried pasta … fair warning!)
Monteverde, 1020 W. Madison St., Chicago, 312-888-3041
The One Off Hospitality Group (Avec, Big Star, The Publican, etc.) hit it out of the park when they opened the Italian seafood-centric Nico Osteria in the Gold Coast a few years ago. Chef de Cuisine Bill Montagne and his team are producing 600 pounds of fresh pasta each week for brunch, lunch, and dinner at Nico, as well as private parties in the adjoining Thompson Chicago hotel. “We make pasta in house for a few different reasons, all of which have to do with quality,” says Montagne. “For our fresh extruded pasta [shapes], there is a dramatic difference in quality even in one or two days. The freshest pasta has the best texture.” For those with celiac or other food allergies, they also offer a gluten-free rice noodle.
Must-Try Pastas: Lobster Spaghetti ($39), spaghetti alla chitarra with guanciale, lobster miso, and spring onion; Cauliflower Ravioli ($17) with Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, Fresno chile, brown butter, sage, and breadcrumbs; Orecchiette ($19) with bigeye tuna, broccoli rave, chile pepper, and pecorino Romano.
Nico Osteria, 1015 N. Rush St., Chicago, 312-994-7100
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.