Chicago is in the throes of a pasta revolution. Though the lure of bottomless bowls at bargain-basement prices will always hold a special place in our hearts, restaurants like Daisies, Osteria Langhe and Monteverde have converted us to delicate, handmade noodles so special that we don’t mind paying a premium for smaller portion sizes.
Tortello, a new fast-casual pastificio in Wicker Park, is the latest to join the ranks of these next-gen Italian-American greats. Where this restaurant falls short for me is in creating a relaxed, comfortable environment in which to fully appreciate those hefty price tags. Then again, the crush of diners on a recent Monday night suggests I might be alone.
Husband-and-wife owners Dario Monni (an Italian expat) and Jill Gray (a Chicago native) were serious enough about creating a haven for premium pasta that they recruited master sfoglina Lilla Simone to train the staff on two recipes: one comprising imported Italian flour and water (for shapes like bucatini and lumache), the other with the addition of Wisconsin-raised eggs (for filled varieties and tagliatelle). Under the watchful eye of executive chef Duncan Biddulph (Lula Cafe, Rootstock), simple, well-seasoned sauces bring each dish to life.
The sunny shop draws in passerbys thanks to its picturesque front window, which frames one of two sfoglini studiously kneading and shaping noodles. On a recent Monday night, I arrived minutes before the commuter rush descended. The bright, white-tiled space with a powder-blue vespa suspended from the ceiling exudes equal parts European specialty food shop and museum. A small retail section up front displays a curated selection of Monni’s favorite Italian drygoods. But my eyes were quickly drawn to glass-enclosed displays, where buttercup-hued noodles are heaped beside carryout containers of sauce. The cashier cheerfully recited the backstory of a few shapes, and reassured me that ordering three helpings for two people was perfectly acceptable.
Beautifully al dente pasta arrived one by one, on plates with ruffled edges like lasagna sheets. Casarecce, or short noodles that are twisted in on themselves, captured sweet pomodoro sauce beneath a milky blob of burrata. A delicate, beguiling sauce of onion, crumbly fennel-studded sausage and saffron-kissed cream cradled toothsome chiusoni, fluted nubs resembling gnocchi. The namesake tortelli were stuffed with luscious burrata and coated in nutty brown butter, hazelnuts and fried sage—a mellow, sweet and richly satisfying dish perfumed with woodsy sage.
Barring a health condition, skip the zoodles and get your greens from the deeply savory roasted broccoli rabe salad, which is studded with vinegar-roasted oyster mushrooms and dressed with neonata, a spicy chile and fish paste sauce. A simple fennel and orange salad kissed with buttery olive oil yet again drives home the high caliber of ingredients.
Still, some will undoubtedly balk at the pricing (i.e., $21 for four tortelli). Monni and Gray emphasize that labor is an important consideration: Their pasta takes three to four times longer than machine-made, demanding a practiced hand and sense for everything from humidity in the air to protein levels in the eggs.
“We pay well above the minimum industry hourly wage for front-of-house staff, and tips are split between the front and back of house equally, giving everyone a sense of pride and care in their work which results in higher pay overall,” they wrote in an email. A fast-casual setup, they added, makes the place more approachable and family-friendly.
As we ate, the dinner rush built to a frenzy. Diners, runners and to-go customers around me jockeyed for space, while I edged ever closer to my table, unceremoniously scarfing down my $19 chiusoni. Blissfully unaware of the mayhem were the two diners perched on bar stools behind the pasta station, sipping aperitifs as they tucked into a pillow of crunchy focaccia.
As the artistry on display here suggests, Tortello’s pasta is exemplary and will lure me back to buy it by the pound. When it comes to dining in, it may well lose out to full-service competitors that remind us to take time and savor the craft.
Atmosphere: This cheery counter-service shop beckons with a picture window showcasing pasta makers hand-rolling fresh lumache, capelli and tortelli. The tiny 35-seat dining room lends itself to quick dine-in or carryout orders.
What to eat: Start with the airy focaccia and end with a cloud-like tiramisu. Toss in your choice of handmade pastas in between.
What to drink: The focused drink list includes coffees, easy-drinking house wines from Venetian maker Bella Pazza, Italian bottled beer, digestifs and an aperol spritz tinged with cynar.
Where to sit: If you can snag the sole pair of counter seats overlooking the pasta-making station, you’ve struck gold. Or grab a spot on the 25-seat patio while warm weather remains.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.