Jun 09

First Look: Ristorante Al Teatro

This new Pilsen spot is a feast for the eyes, even if the kitchen needs more rehearsal time

Metromix.com May 13, 2009 By M. Kathleen Pratt

Ristorante Al Teatro
Address: 1227 W. 18th St., Chicago, IL, 60608
Phone: 312-784-9100
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Week-old Pilsen spot Ristorante Al Teatro offers a full bill. There’s food, sure. But chef Maurizio Fonda‘s Italian fare is just part of the show. The other part, the lavish space in which it’s served, is a feast for the eyes.

Ristorante Al Teatro

In the Kitchen at Ristorante Al Teatro

The grand, 200-seat restaurant occupies the ground floor of Thalia Hall, the corner building that lords over the intersection of 18th and Allport Streets. The hall, named for the Greek muse of comedy and idyllic poetry, houses apartments on the upper levels, as well as retail spaces that are still undergoing renovations and an interior theater, the restaurant’s namesake, that’s next in line for restoration. Originally completed about the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the building earned city landmark designation nearly a century later, in 1989. But it was abandoned and in disrepair until late 2004, when restoration efforts began.

Though the building is late 19th Century, the ornate interior has been transformed into something almost Baroque. The restaurant has a larger-than-life feel, with four airy rooms spread out over two floors. There’s hardly an inch that’s not gilded, covered in some sort of polished stone or painted with trompe l’oeil curtains and arches. With its beautifully restored tin ceiling, fleur-de-lis patterned upholstery and other generally over-the-top embellishments (did we mention the downstairs waterfall?), there’s nowhere quite like it in the city.

Tucked away in the back of the ground-level dining room are two wood-fired pizza ovens where pizzaiolos toil under the watchful eye of a larger-than-life mural of Thalia herself. In any other restaurant, the brick ovens would be a focal point. Here, they’re just another piece of eye candy vying for your attention. But to overlook them would be a mistake.

Servers ferry the pizzas ($11.95-$14.95) from oven to table in seconds so they arrive still steaming, flame-kissed around the edges with a chewy crust and slightly wet center. As if taking a cue from the decor, the pizza menu covers a lot of ground, listing 20 options, from the house specialty pizza al galletto (roasted dark-meat chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, house-made pesto, goat cheese and mozzarella) to classics such as margherita, quattro fromaggi and pepperoni.

House-made pastas are a solid bet too, with options such as gnocchi al fromaggi ($13.95), soft, chewy pasta pillows in a rich five-cheese sauce, and rustic, mushroom-filled tortelloni alla boscaiola ($14.95).

Starting with our antipasto order-too-briny Mediterranean mussels in a savory white wine, herb and tomato broth-almost everything more nuanced than pizza or pasta went astray. Veal scaloppine ($21.95) was so overpowered by tart lemon juice that we could only manage a couple of bites before puckering up-and eventually giving up. Grigliata di calamari al limon ($14.95) suffered the opposite fate, though not to the same extreme. The grilled calamari had a divine smoky char but lacked the bright citrus notes needed for balance.

Ristorante Al Teatro owner Dominick Geraci also owns Caffe Gelato in Wicker Park, and the artisan gelati ($3.99 to go, $5.95 dine-in), available in two dozen flavors, are every bit as rich and silky as you’d expect. Other desserts, including wonderful house-made, chocolate-dipped cannoli ($7.95), are just as good. Most are available for carryout from the front gelato bar-which is perhaps your best option while Ristorante Al Teatro takes a little more time to rehearse its main act.

M. Kathleen Pratt is the Metromix dining producer. kpratt@tribune.com

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