A childhood where Red Lobster and Ponderosa set the gold standard keeps your expectations in check, serving up a good dose of realism in the form of “aim low, leave happy.” There are more mediocre restaurants in this country than great ones, and somehow they do just fine—in fact, they thrive. But in Chicago, no genre of restaurant is allowed to skate by with the same mundane helpings of shtick as Italian food. Witness how the media (TOC included) recently went ape when Little Italy started serving something other than battered veal cutlets. A great little neighborhood Italian joint in Chicago is treated like a “whoa-man-oh-my-God-double-rainbow.”
But what if it turned out to just be a single rainbow? Still kinda special, right? It depends upon your expectations. Entering Lincoln Square’s Due Lire for the first time, it’s easy to feel reassured thanks to the tastefully simple space, the über-friendly host (owner Massimo di Vuolo), the din of locals buzzed on the BYO policy, and the housemade pastas on nearly every table. Some taste as good as they look, especially the tortelloni, bursting with soft swiss chard and tossed in a sage brown butter sauce with little nubs of roasted chestnuts. This dish is neck and neck for best dish with the short rib ravioli, plump pouches holding beautifully braised beef that’s a strong match for boozy porcini sauce and shards of Parmesan.
Sandwich these stellar pastas between an ideal arancini (creamy asparagus and fontina risotto rolled in bread crumbs and fried golden) and one of the most perfectly medium-rare filets you’ve ever had (on butter-smooth polenta dotted with mushrooms, no less), and you start believing you’ve got a double rainbow on your hands. With dessert the veneer starts to crack a little—a scoop of vanilla Black Dog Gelato is the saving grace of a sickeningly sweet apple tart—but you chalk it up to lack of a proper pastry chef, forgive and forget.
And then you return, boasting about this new little gem, how the pastas are great, how the chef is executing the hell out of the dishes, mumbling something about good gelato and getting to work on that $20 bottle of Barbera that would be $60 if Due Lire had its liquor license. But the calamari arrives overly breaded and overly salted, and the shrimp (not advertised as fried, but thick with batter) leaves behind it nagging doubts about its freshness. And while the supremely fluffy gnocchi offers proof that the pasta chef is still on point, they’re botched by blah Bolognese, then all but forgotten in the wake of linguine doused in a flat and oily white wine sauce dotted with salami and clams.
Puzzled and backpedalling, your saving grace comes via beautifully roasted Cornish hen, the crispy skin laced with salt and pepper and the tender meat needing nothing more. Served with only a pile of softened peppers and onions, it’s a simple dish indicative of a neighborhood restaurant comfortable in its casualness. But followed by a tired lava cake sporting burnt edges and no sign of lava, that delicious hen almost rings like a fluke.
So a third visit is in order to settle the score, and with it some confidence is restored. Parmesan risotto under juicy pork loin is textbook in texture and flavor; tuna is seared rare and served over properly room temp caponata, bright and briny from olives and capers and chunky with eggplants roasted to nearly melting. But tipping the scales again are the desserts, a disaster of a tiramisu tasting more of a walk-in cooler than espresso or booze and a sour pomegranate panna cotta circled by a ring of gritty balsamic glaze. Still, you can’t help but hold on to Due Lire’s flashes of greatness as signs of sunnier times to come—or at least a single rainbow in a very cloudy field.
By Heather Shouse