The trend toward handmade pasta is showing up more and more at places like Merlo, Piccolo Sogno and Cafe Spiaggia. Yes, there is more labor involved, but the payoff in flavor and texture is remarkable.
Like any great Italian restaurant, things have to be made from scratch. If not the bread, then at least the pasta. At Cibo Matto, inside the Wit Hotel in the Loop, the restaurant features several great pastas, one of which is the squid ink spaghetti.
"The dish is so great because you have this contrast in color of black and the white from the lump crab meat and the red from the tomatoes and mint and chile giving it a bit of green. So that black really makes everything else pop," said Cibo Matto Chef Todd Stein.
It doesn't come easily. Stein employs one woman just to make the pasta. The eggy dough is colored with a bit of squid ink, then constantly kneaded out. It's run throught a pasta machine, which thins and lengthens the dough. After several passes through, the sheets of black pasta are laid over a chitarra - a kind of guitar-looking contraption, with taught strings. A roller is used to press the dough down and through, forming the even strands of spaghetti. The cooking is the easy part: a saute pan cooks sun-dried tomatoes with chives, garlic and mildly-hot chile peppers. A bit of fish stock is added, along with small hunks of lumb crabmeat. The briefly-boiled pasta goes in last. Once the dish is plated, some fresh mint gives it aroma, while garlic bread crumbs add bite. Stein's other pasta standout isn't made in-house, but it's delicious nonetheless.
"We used to go to Dave's Italian Kitchen in Evanston all the time and I'd always order bucatini carbonara cause it was bacon and egg and pasta. Ya know, they made it with cream and I just thought that's how it was done. As I got older and started cooking and realized that real bucatini carbonara has no cream in it - it's pasta and pepper and egg and cheese and that's it," said Stein.
Stein starts by heating some pancetta in a saute pan with finely-chopped herbs and a little bit of olive oil. He adds the cooked bucatini, continuing to cook them in the pan. Fresh pecorino romano cheese is grated over the plated pasta, over which a small duck egg is cracked. It's just the right amount.
"Nothing that we really have on the menu is massive; I want people to try a little bit of everything, so they get that full experience. It's very simply done and done in really what we consider true Italian style; the highlight is these pastas," Stein said.
The reason that bucatini isn't handmade is because of the intricate nature of that particular pasta shape - it involves a cost-prohibitive extruder. But everything else at Cibo Matto is made from scratch.
Inside The Wit Hotel
201 N. State St.