Chef DiGregorio with Chicken Mario

Chef David DiGregorio has been in Chicago for 35 years, but he still has the broad East Coast accent of his native Rhode Island—an accent that bespeaks big family tables full of hearty Italian food. After working for several restaurants here, he’s spent the last ten years as chef-partner of Lettuce Entertain You’s Osteria Via Stato, which celebrates its tenth anniversary on Wednesday with a party benefiting the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation. Replacing the earlier Greek concept Papagus in one wing of the Embassy Suites in River North, Osteria Via Stato does the kind of Italian food you see a lot of in Chicago—the rustic, easy-to-like kind—and it’s the kind of place that does a lot of large parties, because even your pickiest aunt or sourest supervisor would be hard pressed to leave unhappy.

But in that large class of Italian restaurants, which increasingly dominates River North, Osteria Via Stato has always ranked highly, and their popular Italian table menu, which serves a whole table family style, pulls off the trick of satisfying the people who go to River North to fill up on pasta (like at Lettuce-founded Maggiano’s), while making well-crafted, inspired Italian food. I stopped by recently to talk with Chef DiGregorio about the restaurant’s first decade.

Michael Gebert: What brought you to Chicago?

David DiGregorio: A job. I was actually doing my apprenticeship for a four-star Mobil restaurant at the time in Rhode Island, one of the few. I was there for two years, but the owner decided to sell it and he was coming to Chicago as a food-and-beverage director for the Whitehall Hotel. And he goes, “If you want a job I’ve got one, in Chicago.” So at the time I’m 21 years old, and I decided to get up and move. I never thought that I’d make it my home and be here 35 years later.

Then I was part of the reopening staff for the 95th restaurant in the John Hancock Building. I was there for a good ten or 12 years, I was a chef there from ’85 to ’91. Rich Melman used to come up and eat once in a while, and they were just getting Maggiano’s started. I ended up joining them, and I was with Maggiano’s and helped build that whole thing for 11 years. And then we started this place.

Lettuce, at that time, was really into Italian food—well, I guess everybody was. But they’d had Avanzare and Scoozi and Maggiano’s and Tucci Benucch and so on, all different Italian concepts. What was the specific concept for Osteria Via Stato?

We took a trip to Italy, and we were there for a couple of weeks. Obviously, we had ideas of what the place could be. But we traveled around and ate, for instance, at Ristorante Da Delfina, outside of Florence. Obviously the best cooking, Italian or otherwise, is cooking with the seasons. And you’d go into these places and they’d just want to feed you what’s growing, what’s great right then. And they pretty much just put together a menu based on that, and fed you.

So when we first opened, we had a chalkboard menu only. We just brought you what was seasonal and good. And we kind of evolved from that, where you came in and looked at the chalkboard and that was it, to taking a lot of the items that we were doing and offering them a la carte. So if somebody wanted to eat lighter that day, and didn’t want a whole set menu, they could come in and have a plate of pasta, or some antipasti, a plate of salumi and cheese.

And we still kind of do it the same way, where we have a good selection of dishes that are pretty seasonal, or we do what we call the Italian dinner party, where you have a set menu that has your antipasti, your primi, and your main, and if you want dessert, that’s extra.

Was there any particular region that you leaned toward more?

Not really. I grew up Italian, both my parents are Italian, my grandfather didn’t speak any English. So there was a lot of that culture, everybody had a garden. So you understand, as a kid, what a tomato tastes like on the vine. Or eating things that are great at the time. And that culture is what we understood as coming from Italy.

Italians eat what’s around them. If you’re near the water, you eat a lot of fish. If you’re in the north, in the mountains, it’s like Wisconsin, there’s a lot of dairy and butter. In the south, it’s hot, there’s things like citrus and lemons and artichokes. We’re in the midwest, we’re not in Italy, but we take that Italian spirit and cook with it. Not so much saying, “I’m going cook like Florence.” We’re not in Florence.

What was an early dish that you think helped define the restaurant?

Well, when we were in Florence, there are some dishes that are very traditional dishes that have been around for a long time, and one of them we had at a restaurant called Sostanza was called chicken in butter. That’s a dish that we were inspired by when we there, and took it here. It’s such a simple dish, we take a chicken breast, not pounded or anything, and the skin is browned in butter and then roasted in the oven, in more butter. The butter noisettes, it browns, gets that nutty flavor. Then when it comes out, a good squeeze of lemon and some torn herbs—it’s so simple, but just spectacular. That’s one of our signature dishes that is from day one.

Being part of a corporate empire, did you have people saying things like, “This works at Maggiano’s, you should do it here,” that kind of thing?

The thing is with Lettuce, it’s a bigger company, it’s a parent company and there’s a tremendous amount of resources with that, but it does individual restaurants well. It’s not like this mass-produced one thing. So for this restaurant, yeah, there’s five or six partners, but that’s it. It’s not like everyone at Lettuce is involved with Osteria. Of course, when you have partners, it’s like when you have a wife, you’re going to get a suggestion of different things that are done, and that’s a resource, and it’s a good thing.

Have things about Italian food changed for the restaurant over these ten years?

Always, and I think the food that we’re doing changes from season to season, always, but I think one of the things that I think that evolved, not only for this restaurant but generally for this country, is that farmers are definitely more prominent. Farmers are more up front, and it’s been going on for a while. The relationship that we have with the farmers, and what they’re growing—Slagel Farms is one that has come on the scene with a really strong presence, to where we can get meat that’s superfresh or dry-aged, that’s locally grown, grown in the right way, without any hormones or things like that. So the natural growth of the animal translates to a meat that’s well marbled, delicious.

Those things are a big benefit, because not to be underestimated in any way is the ingredients that we get into the restaurant—whether it’s rapini, which is a cold-weather vegetable that we’re getting in now, or the meat that we get into the restaurant, the cheeses from Wisconsin, the things we get from Nichols Farm or what Mick Klug does with asparagus in the spring. . . those things just stand out, the wonderful ingredients.

And customers understand that better. You’d hear from customers, “I had the best tomatoes in Italy and it’s just not the same here.” Well, you were probably in Italy in late summer, and now it’s January here. Thinking you’ll get the same tomato in winter—it’s not the same. I think they get that now, because of the prominence of the farmers’ markets.

So, the ten-year mark passes, are you thinking about anything you want to change for the next ten years?

For me, looking at this restaurant, it doesn’t look like an older restaurant, it doesn’t feel like ten years old. To keep it vibrant and alive, for me—and I’ve been in restaurants since I was 14 years old—it’s nurturing people, and it’s serving people, it’s feeding people.

So there’s no big structural change you want to make—

Like a roof garden? [He nods toward the Arctic landscape outside the window.] You never know, right? But nothing in the plans.

River North has turned into this place where there’s restaurants everywhere—

And Italian restaurants everywhere—

And Italian restaurants. But I think if you do what you do and your heart is really in it, you truly get pleasure from making people happy with food. We cook in a way, we serve people in a way where we want to nurture them and we want them to eat something delicious, they like that. And they’ll come back for that.

So no trendy River North things like pastas in a jar?

I’ve never been trendy. I’ve always been grounded in the roots of what good cooking is. But keeping your eyes and ears open to what’s changing that’s good too. Maybe pasta in a jar is not one of them, but change is good, change always with an understanding of food and good ingredients and so forth.

Osteria Via Stato’s anniversary party is Wednesday, January 14, admission is $35 per person, benefiting the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and includes food and wine stations around the restaurant. Call 312-642-8450 to make a reservation.