Café Marie-Jeanne only inhabited the building on the northeast corner of California Avenue and Augusta Boulevard for five years, but it’s hard for me to walk into its former dining room without conjuring up memories of croque madames and duck frites. The French-inspired restaurant was one I ate at with some regularity, and it’s sudden shuttering in the midst of the pandemic was just one of many disappointing permanent closures in Chicago. But I’m happy to report that Segnatore is a worthy successor, serving creative Italian fare that maintains the approachability favored by the space’s former tenant.
The blackboards that once displayed Café Marie-Jeanne’s menu are gone, replaced by vintage oil paintings, candelabras and hanging bundles of dried flowers—a decorative theme inspired by the Italian folk healers that serve as Segnatore’s namesake. While it’s not overtly telegraphed by the restaurant’s decor, Segnatore’s Italian influences comes into focus as soon as you sit down at a candlelit table and peruse a drink menu that’s predominantly sourced from the boot-shaped, from the spirits used in cocktails to a long list of wines. Order some of the cherrywood smoked olives to snack on while you decide, because there’s no shortage of options.
Building on years spent serving Italian fare at spots like Three Aces and Charlatan, chef Matt Troost compiles a menu that’s reverent in its technique (particularly the handmade pasta) but decidedly playful in its presentation. No dish exemplifies this spirit quite as plainly as the freestyle “lasagna,” which forgoes intricately stacked layers of noodles in favor of a pile of garlic mafaldine swimming in whipped ricotta and a mushroom bolognese that perfectly mimics the texture and flavor of a meat-based sauce. Even a simple fennel and citrus salad is presented with some panache, opting for long ribbons of fennel—instead of the traditional shaved preparation—that are bathed in a tangy vinaigrette.
My dining companion and I couldn’t muster the appetite to try the family-style whole fried chicken covered in Calabrian honey and pickled peppers, but we did sample the porchetta, crowned with bitter greens that only accentuated the dryness of the slice of roasted pork. A plate of butternut squash girasole ravioli was far more satisfying, balancing the richness of a brown butter sauce with the pasta’s sweet filling. In fact, it was more saccharine than the chocolate ricotta tart that we ordered for dessert, a delicate slice of pastry topped with cherries that are purportedly preserved in negroni (my palate didn’t pick up the boozy flavors).
Amid a sea of recently-opened restaurants that embrace Italian cuisine (like Alla Vita and Adalina), Segnatore sets itself apart by finding a balance between tradition and innovation. From the handmade pasta to the formidable wine list, Segnatore provides everything you anticipate finding at a great Italian restaurant, accompanied by a few delightul twists—all housed in an approachable setting that's fit for a dinner date or catching up with a friend over a plate of gniocchi. And while I'm still bummed that I'll probably never eat duck frites inside of this Humboldt Park dining room again, I'm hoping to eat bowls of freestyle “lasagna” here for years to come.
The vibe: Dark walls decorated with vintage oil paintings and dried flowers make Segnatore feel like it’s been around for decades. The dim lighting and the candelabras throughout the room lend the space a dark and brooding atmosphere.
The food: Chef Matt Troost melds Midwest ingredients with Italian recipes, serving playful riffs on dishes like lasagna and risotto. If you don’t feel like house-made pasta, there’s also seafood, a selection of seasonal salads and an entire fried chicken on the menu.
The drink: Nearly everything offered is from Italy, from the gin and brandy used in Segnatore’s cocktails to the wine list (featuring bottles by female winemakers). Non-alcoholic options include Italian sodas, spritzes and a booze-free Prosecco.
Time Out tip: When the California Clipper eventually reopens, it’ll be easy to have a meal at Segnatore and then head across the street for live music (and maybe another cocktail).