Despite a large breakfast, after five hours of wandering SOFA, sitting in lectures, and chatting with persons far more creative than myself I was getting hungry – thankfully my lunch reservations had been made far in advance…nearly 2 miles away at Coco Pazzo. Walking in the 36 degree “Windy” city weather from the Navy Pier to the merchandise mart I made good pace and covered the distance in just over 20 minutes. Arriving minutes early for my 1:00pm reservation I was greeted by Jack Weiss himself at the reservationists podium and welcomed warmly – I’m not sure if Mr. Weiss remembered, but I’d written in advance to ask if one of the dinner menu items could be offered at lunch and he’d noted it in my reservation.
Seated promptly by a courteous and observant server (he noted my SOFA bag and inquired about the show) I was glad I’d worn a leather blazer – even at lunch Coco Pazzo is packed and has a lot of style with well-heeled clientele talking about the stock market over cocktails and plates of charcuterie, vegetables, and pasta. Offered tap vs. bottled water I selected tap and Joel named off approximately 8 daily specials all of which sounded quite good before presenting me with the menu displaying another twenty or so choices. With a focus on local/seasonal produce, pastas and breads handmade in house daily and “every stock, sauce, pastry, and dessert prepared by our passionate and creative staff” it is hard to find any fault in Coco Pazzo’s business model.
With multiple awards including a Mobile Travel Guide 4-Star rating lining the back walls, a wood burning stove featured prominently in the kitchen, and heavy curtains, white table cloths, exposed brick walls, and Vetri-esque centerpieces adorning the dining room the feel of Cocco Pazzo was rustic yet refined. With water poured and never reaching half-empty my request from the dinner menu was confirmed and I selected two “appetizer-portion” menu items to compliment that choice. I will note here that I rather wish I’d have been told that half-portions were not half price (closer to 3/4 price, actually) but I must admit I love the ability to order smaller portions to taste more options.
With my orders en route for the kitchen I was next met by the bread server – a delightful young woman who, despite poor grasp of English, managed to keep my bread plate full throughout the meal. Served with an intensely grassy olive oil the daily selections included cheesy bread sticks, rustic white sourdough, and rosemary sea salt laden foccaccia. I could lie and say I took it easy on the bread, but let’s just say I have trouble turning down fantastic bread and the Foccaccia was just that.
Beginning my meal proper was the appetizer I’d requested from the dinner menu – I’d heard on good word that it was stunning. Titled Terrina di Fegato with Duck Liver Terrine, Fig Mostarda, Heirloom Apple, endive, and grilled foccaccia I was first surprised by the portion size – for a mere $10 this was a lot of liver. Airy and whipped – not dissimilar to The French Laundry in texture – the liver was one of the more potent flavored terrine’s I’ve had – not “gamey” but not as refined as most Foie Gras preps. What made the dish truly shine was actually the manner in which it was paired – the heavy handedness of the terrine nicely balanced with bitter endive, mild apples, a drizzle of olive oil, and sugary sweet figs. Both on its own and spread on the grilled bread I liked the dish but was not “wowed” in the same manner as by the version at Henri the day before (or Everest the day after.)
Waiting perhaps 10 minutes between courses and wishing I’d have brought my sister and her friend (alas, as art students they wanted to attend all the day’s lectures) to try more dishes and pizzas I have to say the pastas I did experience were exemplary. Beginning first with the Ravioli di Zucca with butternut squash filled pasta, brown butter, sage, and amaretti I couldn’t help but make comparison to Batali’s famous Pumpkin Lune’s at Babbo. With parmesan grated tableside the four small packets were light and textural, but unfortunately somewhat more al dente than I prefer for filled pastas. Pasta “done-ness” preferences aside, the textural contrast lent by the grated cookie and intense sweetness smoothed by the nutty brown butter the flavor of the dish was spot on.
Pasta number two fared much better than the Ravioli in terms of texture and was perhaps one of the best pasta’s I’ve had this year (which is saying something considering the Vetri/Amis/Osteria troika in August.) Titled Tagliatelle Castagne with Chestnut noodles, mushrooms, leeks, pumpkin, and speck the flat ribbons of pasta were flawlessly al dente and tasted like smoky chestnuts through and through. Paired with melting leaks and mushrooms which added further earthiness, baked pumpkin for sweetness, and shreds of house cured speck the entirely of the plate was smoky, sweet, and savory – from what the waiter said it is one of their most popular seasonal recipes and returns for a few months each year.
For dessert I was hoping to see a budino, bread pudding, or tiramisu – alas none were to be found. Featuring seasonal apple tarts and chocolate based desserts I finally settled on Tavoletta with Gianduja mousse, flourless chocolate cake, chocolate hazelnut crunch, and raspberry coulis. Served as a four-layer dessert approximately the size of a pager and topped with two plump raspberries the flavors melded well, but the raspberry gelee atop was nonadherent and fell off with each attempt to cut with a fork. A good dessert, but not a great dessert.
When the meal was over I was again satiated and quite happy with the manner in which I was taken care of. While minor issues with the food were noted they certainly weren’t glaring errors and the service was exemplary. Overall I’d say Coco Pazzo compares favorably to Café Spiaggia in terms of cuisine and service, but I personally found the experience, setting, and flavors at Café Spiaggia superior – either way, in many US cities Coco Pazzo would be the best Italian in town.