Imagine my surprise when I arrived at Siena Tavern at 6pm on a Tuesday and found that every seat in the place was taken. Now imagine the surprise of my companion. “You didn’t make a reservation?” she asked. She shot me a look like I had shown up to the airport without my ID.
I guess I underestimated the draw of Fabio Viviani. It’s not that I’m unaware of his charms: I saw him on Top Chef, saw the way he flirts with everybody with his adorable accent and big eyes. The guy is like a bearded, Italian version of Bambi (Bambino, I guess?) and, sure, I crush on him a little just like the rest of America.
But flock to his restaurant, which I have a healthy doubt is actually his restaurant, at 6pm on a Tuesday? I’m not in that deep. Apparently, the rest of Chicago is.
Surely people don’t expect to see Fabio, do they? Everybody must assume, as I do, that this is a business venture, akin to the Bobby Flay burger stands you find in casinos. I always go into these celebrity-chef situations with the assumption that the food will be heavily researched to set off endorphins, but not necessarily nuanced. In other words, lots of cream, lots of cheese, lots of big hunks of meat. Looking around the room for a trace of Fabio, I felt vindicated in my assumptions. Looking over Siena’s cheese-, meat- and bread-heavy menu, I rested my case.
But I had to check myself when it came to the bolognese, because it was everything I could ever ask the dish to be: fresh pasta with a textural bite, and a sauce that goes deep, so deep in flavor you start digging for secret ingredients. The pizzas are also impressive, very thin but very crisp—when you pick up a slice, it holds its shape, and when you bite it, it has a satisfying crunch. Did I mention I ate all of this food at the crudo bar, the one area where I was able to snag seats on two visits? And did I mention that even the idea of a crudo bar is more than I was willing to give Fabio credit for? I guess I need to give these television chefs a break.
Or do I? The more I ate Fabio’s food, the more I felt I was being satiated by overly easy flavors. The guy adds oven-dried tomatoes to a kale Caesar salad, and they obliterate the bitterness of the greens and any bite of anchovy in the dressing. His composed plate of smoked mozzarella has both honeycomb and candied walnuts, sugary elements that soften the blow of the grilled escarole. I guess Fabio really is a sweetheart, because he sure does pull his punches.
The surprises are intermittent. The big plate of chicken: overcooked. The big plate of osso buco: almost overcooked. The cocktails: Most of them are two sweet; one of them (the No. 4, a lightly tweaked aviation) is subtle and lovely. At the end of the meal came perhaps the biggest surprises of all: cannoli with hints of bitter chocolate taking the edge off. An apple-fig tart sprinkled with fennel seeds. Maybe the 6pm crowds weren’t clamoring for Fabio at all. Maybe they were clamoring for this.