Somewhere, Stanley Kubrick is blushing. Remember that trippy mindbender of a set that he created for the close of 2001: A Space Odyssey? The sterile space shuttle painted in what looked like five coats of white-out that poor old astronaut Dave Bowman saunters into before the end credits roll?
Well, I found it. It’s parked on the third floor of the new Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing of the Art Institute in Tony Mantuano’s new Italian restaurant, Terzo Piano. Same blizzard-white look. Same otherworldly ambiance. One heck of a better kitchen.
But seriously, the Dirk Denison-designed space is awe-inspiring, a sprawling, three-dimensional 220-seat canvas of white, which draws its only hints of color from the suits in the seats and the clusters of tri-color Cerigno olives and caper berries that Mantuano dapples onto his plates.
Flanked to the east and west by nothing but sheer, unadorned floor-to-ceiling windows, the rectangular space is designed to invite in as much sunlight as possibleóa Renzo Piano hallmark. The result is something like eating inside a giant prism. Light streams in, glides over and refracts off the resin tabletops and white oak floors, sending quivers of light bounding in every direction. The shift of a cloud outside can drape the room in shadows as deep as anything Caravaggio ever painted, providing the illusion that everyone is dining al fresco in a translucent castle in the sky.
Mantuano, a longtime proponent of importing ingredients from Italy for his creations at Spiaggia, relies on Midwestern ingredients and small American artisan cheese producers at Terzo, spreading California burrata on his tomato flatbread and presenting Iowa prosciutto as the centerpiece of his antipasto plate.
They have a term for this kind of thing in the Old Countryóheresy. And to some degree the old timers might have a point. If you’ve ever eaten Mantuano’s famous ravioletto (see the video of him preparing it), you’ll quickly realize that the smoky, rubbery texture of the crescenza from Texas can’t compete with creamier, more nuanced imported cheeses. Nor does the over-salted whipped smoked whitefish spread served with a flaky rosemary potato crisp conjure up memories of creamy plates of bagna cuda from Piedmont.
But who’s to complain about a few rain clouds when you’ve got so much sunshine? I would pit any of Mantuano’s slidersóa juicy beef burger with Wisconsin Colby, a lamb number with goat cheese and grainy mustard, and the best-in-show shrimp patty with a Calabrian pepper sauceóagainst any other burger, without exception, in the city.
If there was ever proof that careful Midwestern sourcing can not only sustain but also improve upon cherished Italian recipes, it’s the skin-on Lake Erie walleye pike with a deconstructed panzanella salad composed of chunky crunchy croutons, pickled onions and a creamy orange moat of a tomato vinaigrette that bursts with flavor.
If anything, the turn toward local ingredients makes Terzo the most approachable of Mantuano’s restaurants. He seems to have loosened up his chef’s jacket a bit, his “What Came First” salad combines boiled organic chicken eggs and chicken strips, arugula and a trio of celery accents. There’s a clever little wine list, but a good portion of the room was swilling the homemade pomegranate lemonade.
While you might be tempted by the vin-cotto zeppole (tiny pierogi-shaped fritters stuffed with plum jam), the smart play come dessert time is the firm yet gooey almond financier with strawberry rhubarb salad and créme fraéche sorbet, which, in keeping with the décor, is nothing less than out-of-this world.
Tip: The easiest access to the restaurant, which does not require museum admission, is via the entrance on Monroe Street between Michigan Avenue and Columbus Drive