Meatballs, sausage and neckbone gravy

About the time three of us were munching on the house-made braunschweiger (pork liver) at Tete Charcuterie, we were talking about Formento’s, the upcoming Italian-American throwback/tribute place coming in December from the team behind the Bristol, which also partners (with the Boka Group) in Balena. For some guys who’ve been fairly cutting-edge, throwback Italian-American seems a funny move, but sitting on Randolph Street, the logic of it gets pretty clear. Here’s a dining neighborhood close to downtown, certainly drawing both business-dinner and prebasketball traffic, yet among the top-level places there’s almost nothing that’s normal dinner for business diners. Randolph to Fulton is foodie row, full of organ meats and weird fusions, from kimchi Reubens at Little Goat to headcheese at Tete to grilled sardines at Vera to moqueca at La Sirena to whatever’s going on at Next or G.E.B. In the midst of all that, comfy old-school Italian-American sounds like cranking money out of a pasta roller.

But for those of us who think the Bristol has been one of the best farm-to-table restaurants Chicago ever had (and a first-class modern-Italian one, sotto voce), the question was whether chef Chris Pandel and his crew could make this cuisine exciting. I’m not immune to the charms of Italian-American restaurants, but it takes a lot of Sinatra-era atmosphere to make me think the food is more than serviceable most of the time. Muddy flavors that have been cooked to death, absurd portion sizes making up for factory-level kitchen skills, way too much cheese melted onto anything that will hold it . . . There’s a reason the whole world rebelled against it in the 80s and 90s in favor of a lighter, if not necessarily more authentic version of Italian cuisine. Still, the magic of the menu that promises “Nonna’s meatballs” and Sunday neck-bone gravy is potent for a lot of Chicagoans, so I was curious to see what this crew could do when I was invited to a preview of it at the Bristol. (I was a guest of the house, so needless to say this is not an official review of a restaurant that won’t be open for two months anyway.)

The inspiration for it, the menu says, is the cooking of co-owner John Ross’s own grandmother (whose last name was Formento), and Ross himself also makes a point of mentioning that Tony Quartaro, the Balena sous chef who will head the kitchen at Formento’s, likewise grew up on grandma’s food. Yet the first two things we saw were less grandma’s house than supper club—not that there hasn’t always been a lot of overlap between the two at old-school places like Gene & Georgetti.

Garlic bread with crab dip, radicchio arancini

The first course consisted of an upscale version of spinach dip, though compared to the canonical version at, say, Pizano’s, spinach took a definite back seat to crabmeat; there were also a couple of arancini-like balls of rice with golden raisins, but wrapped in radicchio rather than bread crumbs. This was followed by an excellent Caesar salad with visible fillets of anchovy and impressive blocks of crouton placed one by one with tongs onto the plate to form a kind of Croutonhenge.

Caesar salad

I loved this supper-club part of the meal, clean flavors and presentation that showed off what American kitchens could do with first-class ingredients before chefs had to put their own stamp on everything. This is what James Beard was talking about, back in the day. But we hadn’t gotten to the grandma part of the meal yet.

Canestri with Sunday Gravy

That came with a pasta course of canestri—think big, chewy elbow macaroni—with Sunday gravy. Lightly sauced and topped with a dab of fresh ricotta, and with good earthy flavors from slow cooking, it was an antidote to the giant gloppy pasta school that is so common in Italian-American. So far so good—I’d be happy to come back for pastas like this one.

Veal taleggio

It was harder for me to judge the merits of a veal chop stuffed with Taleggio and surrounded by mushrooms in a bordelaise, because this is exactly what I wouldn’t order in a place like this—meat with lots of gooey cheese. We were definitely below the usual Italian-American restaurant ratio of one package of Kraft shredded mozzarella to one piece of meat, and the technique was fine and restrained, though the dish itself was a bit undersalted. But it was still the heaviest part of the meal, and it just wasn’t my thing. During the supper-club part of the meal the women next to us (who weren’t having the Formento’s preview menu) saw what we were getting and sighed audibly. But when we got to this part, that table had just received a gorgeously grilled fish with lots of fresh herbs and chunks of citrus—and I was the one coveting a quintessential Bristol or Balena dish like that, whole fish with brightly minimalist accents, freshness on a plate. (I’m going to guess there will be seafood items somewhat like that on Formento’s final menu.)

Tutti Frutti Spumoni

The final course was an ice cream cake. When Balena opened with ice cream sundaes as its primary dessert it seemed an odd choice, but this fit right in with the new place’s comfy menu.

My concern was that in trying to bring an 1950s concept back to life, Formento’s might get too far from the Bristol’s virtues, the way Next Steak reportedly did from Next’s. Balena, for all that it was an Italian concept, grew pretty naturally out of the pastas and so on at the Bristol, and wasn’t afraid to break the concept for something that tasted great, like the short ribs in a spicy orange glaze that seemed more Asian than Italian. Formento’s doesn’t look like it’s ever going to go that far, but it promises to treat its model cuisine with a lot of the same simple, bring-out-its-natural best technique that made so many of us admire the Bristol in the first place.