You can make a satisfying night out by picking over some of the nearly two dozen small-plate options.
You can make a satisfying night out by picking over some of the nearly two dozen small-plate options. Credit: Amanda Areias

It hasn’t been a quiet season for Italian food, but there was one low-key opening that didn’t have every prosecco-soaked food writer in town scampering after a celebrity chef. Azzurra EnoTavola is Marty Fosse’s fourth extant restaurant, and the first of those to open outside his Andersonville stronghold, anchored by pan-Italian Anteprima. If Fosse—a front-of-the-house veteran of Spiaggia—is harboring dreams of an empire, he need only rebrand his likable flagship and sail it out to neighborhoods all over the city.

There’s a lot about Azzurra that feels like Anteprima: tin ceiling, superfluous doors and empty windowpanes, and bright, sunny walls hung with blown-up Italian postcards. If it strikes its own visual identity it’s from the ceiling fixtures, made from antique Victrola horns, and tables painted the deep shade of Mediterranean blue that the restaurant is named for. The menu is like Anteprima’s too, with some familiar dishes, and it brings together a similar diversity of options without ever appearing unfocused. At Azzurra, there is much touting of chef Katie Kelly’s hands-on approach to everything from sausage to yogurt to pasta to vinaigrette; anything “fatti in casa” is helpfully emboldened on the menu. If you find yourself lost, it’s not a bad decision to focus on those.

Most formidable is a long list of shareable small plates, many reminiscent of the Venetian snacks served at Fosse’s Bar Ombra. Near the top is a carrot caponata: sweet, tart batons of root vegetables along with crushed olives and pine nuts, piled on the plate like a textbook example of the importance of simplicity in good Italian food. You can make a satisfying night out by picking over this and some of the nearly two dozen other small-plate options (not to mention specials), with a bottle or two from an affordable wine list that runs down the boot from Trentino to Sicily, all available by the glass. Mushroom-stuffed arancini (which substitute grains of ruddy farro for rice) are fried crisp and drizzled in a murky, earthy porcini gravy. Leaves of bitter radicchio are mellowed on the grill and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, walnuts, and Gorgonzola. Sweet, plump, glistening shrimp are perched on a bed of deep-green escarole, brightened by a chile vinaigrette. Bouncy sections of octopus tentacle are tossed with wafer-thin slices of just-cooked potato and a fiery chile and onion salsa. A thin, livery sheet of pork terrine hides under a camouflage of fried egg and frisee, while a trio of orange-scented lamb meatballs are buoyed by the tartness of preserved lemon yogurt.

Most of the pastas are made in-house and I’d recommend sticking with those—the gnocchi, linguine, orecchiette, and tagliatelle—rather than the pedestrian dried-spaghetti carbonara, wallowing in a watery, barely eggy sauce, or a moistureless rigatoni special in a thin rabbit ragout. The irregular, pudgy orecchiette, on the other hand, are clearly thumbed out individually, tossed with Italian sausage and rapini, and well worth honoring the effort they took to produce.

Like the pastas, second courses are less numerous than the smaller plates. They include simple meats such as a disintegrating lump of Chianti-braised short rib atop a soothing polenta with brussels sprouts, and chicken scarpariello, simmered in wine with pickled cherry peppers, brought down only by the inclusion of some dried-out Italian sausage—a problem repeated with a plate of duck sausage, served with pureed sweet potato and cranberry relish. Kelly, formerly of the Bristol, may need to work on her encased meats. But a filleted trout stuffed with nutty fregola pasta and sweet nuggets of shrimp demonstrates a better facility with more delicate ingredients. Frequently rotated specials have included fall-off-the-bone pork ribs that are seared crispy, topped with yogurt, and resting on a bed of meaty borlotti beans. It’s a shame this one won’t stick around.

Given the predominance of winter greens, pickled vegetables, squash, and the like, it’s safe to assume this menu will be forever seasonal—and that extends to the dessert menu, which currently features an arid apple and cranberry bread pudding (more like cake) and a silky butternut squash budino with cracked walnuts. Better to finish off with a flight of house-made digestivos, which run from clear, light-bodied limoncello and arancello to a more savory bay-leaf-based potion and a complex liqueur infused with walnut, cinnamon, clove, and vanilla.

With this combination of simple, soulful Italian food and wine at such nice prices (no dish higher than $20, most within reach of $10), there’s no reason Azzurra shouldn’t have a long run in Wicker Park. Every neighborhood deserves a place like this.