Like the rest of the Renzo Piano–designed Modern Wing, the restaurant at the Art Institute is a beautiful space: sleek, pristine and awash with light on even the gloomiest early summer day. But taking a room this flawless and attaching it to Spiaggia chef Tony Mantuano (and tacking on the price tags to show it) raises expectations—even for a museum restaurant—that the food doesn’t meet.
The highlights of the menu demonstrate the same simplicity and elegance that make the architecture so compelling: A tangle of wildly flavorful garlic scapes rests among heaps of the creamiest burrata (milky-soft fresh mozzarella) on flatbread; an enormous pile of fresh, crunchy pea shoots and tendrils comes with wisp-thin slices of sheep’s-milk cheese and crisped La Quercia prosciutto; and a rich, indulgent chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo plated atop salted caramel is one of the greatest desserts I’ve eaten at a restaurant in a long time.
But what came in between that flatbread and the semifreddo is the problem. A trio of mini burgers suffers from the travesty of sliders: The patty-to-bread ratio makes each one taste dry and bready, even when there’s a well-seasoned lamb burger inside mixed with Capriole goat cheese (and especially when the patty is a bland, battered “shrimp burger”). A sesame crust nearly swallowed a fillet of whitefish (why not sesame-crust just one side?). A dollop of lemon-infused ricotta added gentle acidity to a bowl of spaghetti, but once the ricotta ran out, the dish had exactly two notes: butter and salt. And then there was the dessert that dared show its face next to that semifreddo: three tough, dense, heavy espresso doughnuts that not even the thoughtful accompaniment of sliced cherries and fennel fronds could save. In a room fixated on lightness, there was no way the doughnuts could hide their weight.