Until recently, Bolognese food wasn’t just hard to find in Chicago—it was hard to pay for. The Merlo mini empire has had the lock on the region for a decade, with diners finding special occasions to justify paying for Luisa Silvia Marani’s eight-hour braised veal osso buco and papardelle Bolognese at Merlo on Maple and Merlo on Lincoln.
But while the demand for good Italian food hasn’t dwindled, paychecks have. So a few months ago, the family opened Merlo Trattoria on Halsted and, more recently, morphed their Lincoln location into Merlo La Salumeria, dropping the priciest items from the menu, keeping pastas around $17 and adding antipasti in the $6 to $10 range.
Imported salumi and cheeses served on wooden slabs are a step in the right direction, encouraging the shared-plate atmosphere La Salumeria needs to stay alive, but the assortment of speck, mortadella and prosciutto di Parma is merely fine. More impressive are the pastas, rolled out by a pasta maker on display in the room’s front window. Filled pastas lead the pack, especially the fat pockets of ricotta and artichokes, bathed in butter and dotted with more artichokes (this time crispy ones).
Entrées of a golden, crunchy mound of EVOO-fried baby octopus, scallops and plump shrimp and that meltingly tender osso buco both prove satisfyingly solid, but as you search around on the plate for some contrast—tender greens, lemon-spritzed arugula, anything—it becomes clear that in lowering the prices, Merlo pared down the plates as well. As à la carte feels a little sneaky and the room is still noticeably light on customers, perhaps a full-fledged move to small plates could bridge the gap (and might leave room for delicate desserts like “Nonna’s” custard-filled tart, pictured). As it is, the restaurant still seems like a place to visit only occasionally. Only now we’re not sure just what that occasion would be.