When I first walked into Tre Soldi, I was hit with a sense memory. I realized that I’d been to the space before, back when it was the mediocre Italian cafeteria Pompeii, and the bad memories of my near-poisoning there unjustly lingered on my palate. Luckily, the dinner that followed wiped away every hint of those sickly memories.
Tre Soldi, the new restaurant from the team behind Coco Pazzo, serves up a menu of Roman-inspired dishes that are all designed for sharing. Unlike the “shared small plates” that seem to populate every mediocre trendy restaurant and cost $16 for a plate filled with nothing, these portions are hearty and surprisingly affordable. An appetizer of baby octopus yielded no fewer than eight substantial tentacles, all dripping in a spicy, savory Italian sauce that had us asking for extra bread to sop it up. The cost? $12.
Most American Italian restaurants are determined to put diners into a minor coma even before they get to the main course, which is why it’s so refreshing to see Tre Soldi’s appetizer menu filled with vegetable and fish dishes. Skip the refreshing but bland escarole salad and head straight for the fagioli. Few chefs know exactly what to do with green beans, aside from using them as a garnish or side, but Chef Brandon Wolff seems to love them, and they’re festooned on dishes across the menu. He handles them perfectly in the fagioli, a combination of fresh, local beans, huge pieces of crisp pancetta and shavings of pecorino.
Pair your appetizer with a decent cocktail or, if you’re cost savvy, with a carafe of Italian wine. Either by oversight or design, Tre Soldi’s carafes (meant to hold slightly more than two glasses) are less than a third of the price of a bottle and only a few dollars more than a single glass, making for an incredible deal.
The pastas are Italian-style, served in portions small enough that you can try something else on the menu without feeling like an over-inflated football. I was particularly impressed by the chittarine, squid-ink pasta with broccolini and clams. Often, whole shellfish scattered on top of pasta are cooked like they’re an afterthought and boiled into a rubbery mess. Not these clams, which were tender and gave the dish a whiff of the sea that almost made me forget I was in the middle of River North.
For that’s where Tre Soldi is, on an awkward stretch of East Ohio Avenue, and neither the location nor the space does the restaurant any favors. The entire space consists of one large room that still feels a little like a cafeteria, and the décor neither distracts nor transports the diner. The fake antique stone façade covering one wall is reminiscent of the exterior of an Olive Garden, and the restaurant (even two-thirds empty) is so loud that our server had to lean down and yell at times.
But while the space may not distract me, the pan-roasted chicken does. A half chicken straight from Slagel Farm, it’s perfectly cooked and drenched in a spicy calabrian chili oil that makes you sit up straight and pay attention. The sauce, a mix of peppers and olives, blends with the hot chilies to create a dish almost worthy of an entire special trip. Wolff is using local meats for most of his dishes without making a lot of noise about it, which means that well-meaning carnivores don’t have to worry about eating at Tre Soldi.
The pizzas have gotten more attention than anything else on the menu, and there’s a reason. The restaurant claims that delivery is coming soon, and if they’ll deliver these crisp, thin, chewy pizzas around the city, other pizza joints will have to step up their game. Unfortunately, you should end your meal with the pizza, as the desserts don’t yet live up to expectations. One particular failure, an almost-obligatory riff on a tiramisu, tasted like nothing more than a cup full of cake icing dusted with cocoa powder.
Desserts and decor aside, Tre Soldi is an exceptionally solid addition to the city’s Italian dining lineup. Will it inspire trips across the city? Likely not. But anyone who lives or works within 10 blocks should be counting their blessings.