Chicago has no shortage of fantastic Italian restaurants, but the bar scene has some catching up to do. Sure, most watering holes have a spritz or negroni on the menu, but I’m talking about a different level of commitment—one that immerses its clientele. Enter Otto Mezzo. The Italian-inspired concept from Rockit Ranch Productions is helmed by Brandon Phillips (The Drawing Room, Bottlefork) and opened earlier this year in the former Ay Chiwowa space in River North.
The cocktail menu offers a phenomenal negroni, but I’d urge you to delve deeper and put some trust in your server. After all, you could spend the entire night Googling cochineal (a dye that comes from pulverized bugs), Vecchia Romagna Etichetta Nera (brandy from Emilia-Romagna, Italy), Bepi Tosolini Fragola (strawberry liqueur) and other words that appear on the menu. The Biscotti Sour is a good place to start. Crafted with biscotti-flavored liqueur, grappa and egg white, this creamy, sweet concoction is as satisfying as cookies straight from your grandmother’s oven. On the other edge of the spectrum is the Dolemite Don’t Need No Posse, a blend of bourbon, grape-distillate-based amaro, “alpine”-style amaro, pine liqueur and orange-saffron bitters. I’m convinced that the smoky sipper is an old, timber-filled library in liquid form.
You’ll need some hearty bites to wash down all that booze, and the menu doesn’t disappoint. Start with the Ultimo Olives, which are filled with burrata, wrapped in ‘nduja, rolled in focaccia breadcrumbs and fried to order. It’s the bar snack to end all bar snacks. Lighten the load with the vegetable giardiniera crudité, a zingy collection of pickled veggies served with a black garlic dipping sauce that you’ll want to pour into your mouth.
After a night of drinking and noshing at Otto Mezzo, you’ll practically forget you’re in Chicago. The sleek, sexy speakeasy has the power to transport its visitors to an old Italian movie. It’s the kind of place you won’t feel guilty making a regular habit.
Atmosphere: Adorned with geometric gold bar stools, blue banquettes and wax-dripping candelabras, this space is straight-up sensual.
What to eat: Ultimo Olives, vegetable giardiniera crudité and whatever pasta special is available.
What to drink: Don’t be shy about playing a casual game of 20 Questions with your server.
Where to sit: Saddle up at the bar if you’re solo or grab a table for two if you’re on a date. The sultry back room is ideal for groups of four or more.