Italian eatery takes old world approach

October 9, 2009 (CHICAGO) And while there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Chicago, only a handful make everything from scratch, serving portions like they do in the old country. One of them in is in Lincoln Park.

Once you've eaten in Italy, you come back to the States and realize there are very few places taking the old world approach: homemade pasta, using restraint with sauces and serving portions that are more in line with how people eat in Europe, as opposed to taking home doggy bags with two pounds of food.

One Chicagoan has been taking this approach the past few years. It's been so successful, he recently opened a second location right next door to the Park West theater.

You won't find any bowls brimming with pounds of linguine that came from a box at Theo Gilbert's place. His menus at both Terragustos in Ravenswood and Lincoln Park are void of any "vodka" sauces or tiramisu. What he is interested in, however, is putting food on the plate that reminds him of his extensive travels in Italy over the years, as well as his stint at the four-star Spiaggia.

"The soul of Italian cuisine and the heart of it really, is staying local; getting the freshest, best ingredients that you possibly can and not messing with them. There's not a lot of ego involved," said Gilbert.

Especially when you're cooking with a minimal amount of ingredients, and letting them shine on their own. Take his sformato - essentially a vegetable custard containing garlic, eggs, cream and potatoes - here, he uses red peppers to make an early Fall version, then drapes it in a rich mushroom ragu.

"It's literally whatever they have laying around; if their neighbor has a handful of dandelion greens that are really nice, they will turn it into sformato, which is a nice light way to experience all kinds of vegetables," Gilbert said.

Crostini rotate almost weekly. Instead of offering out-of-season tomatoes and basil like many other places, he opts to top his with luscious Iberico ham and a creamy aoli, as well as fresh buffalo mozzarella and a homemade pesto: deep and vibrant.

All of the pastas are made by hand, including the tajarin - eggy ribbons that he tosses in a flavor-jammed ragu of beef and pork.

Gilbert says one of his biggest challenges isn't using unfamiliar ingredients, it's convincing diners to eat more like Europeans: smaller portions of more dishes.

"The key to that is losing the American enormous portions where you have to take two thirds of it home with you so you can eat it the next day. It's just having the right-sized portion to enjoy your meal and not roll out of there," said Gilbert.

Gilbert's menu changes frequently at both locations. He says the response to his approach has been surprisingly successful. So much so, that he's currently looking at opening a place in the northern suburbs.

Terragusto (two locations)
340 W. Armitage Ave.

1851 W. Addison St.

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