Cafe Society


Italian restaurants are popping up like wild oregano, making them a serious contender in the oversaturation competition now led by Mexican and Chinese. Most of these are red-sauce joints doing the old spaghetti/Chianti routine; few feature the kind of cooking that makes Italy a true gastronomic destination.

Or, as Joe Catalano-Tudor puts it, "There's Italian restaurants, and then there's Italian restaurants." Joe and his wife, Dedria, own the four-year-old Ristorante Catalano--a restaurant that's earned its italicized emphasis. As for the recent crop of Italian eateries, Joe says, "Hey, it means they are popular. That can only be good for us."

Particularly since Catalano soars by comparison. At first glance, the dining room looks almost too calm to be authentic Italian; it reminded me of a suburban house that's so clean and perfect, all the vacuum-cleaner lines go in the same direction. Catalano's napkins match the wallpaper, the tables and the booth upholstery; even the dishes are color-coordinated. I felt as though I'd worn the wrong clothes because I didn't blend in. Although the careful decor isn't particularly offensive, it isn't relaxing, either.

Fortunately, I was much more comfortable with what came out of the kitchen--particularly the minestrone ($3.25), that epitome of Italian comfort foods. Translated, minestrone means "big soup," and Catalano's interpretation lived up to its name. The soup was jam-packed with goodies--cannelinis, red peppers, tomatoes and extra basil and oregano--all floating in a peppery, Italian-sausage-based stock with a few pieces of sausage thrown in for added interest. Because this tasty vegetable-and-bean stew was served in a lidded pewter crock, its crown of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano had begun to melt by the time it reached the table; the sharpness of the cheese contrasted beautifully with the stock's meatiness.

As with most of Catalano's offerings, the minestrone comes from an old family recipe. Some were handed down by Dedria's grandfather, Papa Michael Rosario Catalano, who owned several restaurants in the Chicago area from the Fifties until he died a few years ago. Since 1984 Dedria and Joe have run several small spots of their own, but until they opened Catalano, most of their efforts went into the catering business that they still run next door to the restaurant. "This is our first attempt at such a big operation," Joe says. "We dedicated the place to Papa Catalano, and we have used his recipes as well as recipes from other relatives on both sides of the family. But the minestrone is pure Catalano."

Papa's superb soup was accompanied by Joe's own addictive breadsticks. The addition of honey and olive oil to the batter made these dough logs puffy and slightly sweet; plenty of black pepper, basil, crushed red pepper and oregano lent extra zest. A dip in the basil-laden marinara sauce elevated the breadsticks way beyond the level of mere baked goods. We were just as pleased with our salads, which had been tossed in a remarkable Italian vinaigrette packed with herbs and spices. Shallots, basil and oregano were the key components, but what held all these strong-willed ingredients together was a light touch of Dijon mustard.

Sadly, the two luncheon entrees that followed were only average. The mad pasta ($6.95) was billed as a mix of Italian sausage, crushed red pepper and vegetables, but the milky tomato "cream" sauce failed to pick up any of the sausage's heat, and the pasta seemed merely annoyed rather than mad. The fettuccine Alfredo ($6.95) didn't work at all; there was no hint of the promised garlic or Romano cheese in the dull cream sauce. We ate more minestrone and more breadsticks to remind ourselves of just how good Catalano's food could be.

On a return visit for dinner, anticipation of the soup and salad courses helped us survive the disappointing appetizers. The fritto misto ($9.95) brought enough food for four people, but they would have to be four people with a high tolerance for grease. The zucchini slices had soaked up every drop of oil they'd touched, leaving them limp and too rich. The artichoke hearts were tempting, but they'd lost some of their protective covering in the fryer and were greasy, too. Under their oozy, breaded exteriors, the bites of calamari were tasty and tender, but the same couldn't be said for the breaded mozzarella: The sticks hadn't been cooked long enough to melt the cheese at the center, and after a few minutes on the plate they hardened into little bricks.

For the rest of the meal, though, it was smooth sailing along the Mediterranean. We had more minestrone, more breadsticks, more salad--and then two intense main dishes. The prosciutto de pollo ($14.95) featured a whole chicken breast stuffed with prosciutto, soaked in a pungent prosciutto cream sauce (made glorious by wild mushrooms), and then baked until the cream sucked every last bit of saltiness from the cured ham and passed it to the chicken, giving the bird an incredible tenderness. The side dishes, while simpler, were no less striking; the zucchini, summer squash and broccoli were so amazingly fresh that my husband wondered if Joe and Dedria had a garden out back. The vegetables had been cut into strips, steamed a second away from true tenderness, then lightly coated in a good-quality olive oil and seasoned with parsley.

Although I have yet to eat a lasagna in America that remotely resembles the true Italian dish, Catalano's lasagna formaggio ($10.95) had charms all its own. The homemade pasta was interspersed with spicy sausage (something we rarely found in Italy) and four cheeses--ricotta, Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano and mozzarella--then engulfed in a sweet-and-spicy marinara filled with fresh tomatoes. More Romano and a trip to the broiler finished it off. The sheer abundance of cheeses made this dish something special, and the sausage cut back on the richness.

Since both dishes were huge and filling, only sheer greediness made us order bread pudding for dessert. Thank heaven for gluttony. Catalano's version has a base made of French bread ("Let it sit overnight to dry out," Joe suggests), eggs and lots of sugar. So far, so typical. Then Joe adds chopped nuts, raisins and apricots, the last minced so fine you can't really see them, but you can't miss their special sweetness. "It's really better after several days," Joe says. "But it's hard not to eat it right away."

It's so good, I'd wait if I had to. And in the meantime, could you pass the soup?