a fancy plating of fish and rice on a dark-blue dish
Mahi safid: bronzino, herbed smoked rice, mushroom, and saffron beurre blanc Credit: Sandy Noto for Chicago Reader

Last November, chef Matteo Lo Bianco took a crash course in Persian food.

Each day he’d show up at Farzad Shahsavarani’s house and begin cooking under the eye of his former boss, and his sister Farideh.

They made all the classics: the intensely herbaceous lamb and bean stew, ghormeh sabzi; the fruity egg-stuffed meatballs, kofte Tabrizi; the yogurt-enriched, legume and noodle soup, ash reshteh; the smoky eggplant-tomato dip, mirza ghasemi; and a lot more.

“They felt he had the flavors down immediately,” says Mariam Shahsavarani, Lo Bianco’s business partner and Farzad’s daughter. “But they felt he was truly there when he started making things his own. There was a moment when he was making ghormeh sabzi and sauteeing the herbs, and he commented about how he understood their importance. He made mirza ghasemi for them for the first time and suggested they double smoke it, and then later developed the tahdig chips to go with it.”

Lo Bianco is a Milan-born chef and veteran of some half-dozen Italian restaurants around town (Coco Pazzo, Volare, Francesca’s, Rosebud). Shahsavarani is a former flight attendant who, by her own admission, doesn’t belong anywhere near a professional kitchen. But together they’ve opened Maman Zari, the first and only seasonal fine-dining, prix fixe Persian restaurant in the country.

They officially open on Thursday with an eight-course tasting menu of reimagined dishes—with wine pairings—on a stretch of Kedzie Avenue in Albany Park that’s also home to two of the city’s most established and beloved Persian restaurants.

But you won’t find anything like Lo Bianco’s compressed watermelon salad with balsamic pearls on the menu at Kabobi, nor his double-smoked mirza ghasemi, served with crunchy saffron-tinted rice chips that mimic tahdig, the crispy bottom-of-the-pot layer of basmati rice that every Persian family fights over. Noon-O-Kabab’s menu sprawls, but you won’t find any deep cuts like Lo Bianco’s abdoogh khiar, a chilled yogurt soup with cucumber, walnuts, and raisins; or his mahi sefid, a saffron-battered, gently pan-fried branzino filet, served with smoked dill-parsley-cilantro-flecked rice and saffron beurre blanc.

Shahsavarani may not think much of her own kitchen skills, but she does have an extensive knowledge of Persian food, history, and language that she developed beginning at the age of four on her first visit to Iran to visit her grandparents during the Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebrations. She and her grandparents, who lived part of the time on a fruit orchard in the north of the country near the Caspian Sea, traded visits all through her childhood, teens, and early adulthood. In her 20s, she lived in Iran for nine months, studying Farsi and traveling all over the country.

“My family bonds over food,” she says. “You don’t have a gathering without oodles and oodles of food. Anytime someone stops by for ten minutes, it’s like, ‘Let’s cut up some fruit and have a cup of tea.’ My caffeine tolerance got really good when I lived there.”

In the summer, her grandparents escaped the Tehran heat and moved into the apartment above the Shahsavaranis’ Noble Square catering company. “I’d have lunch with them,” she says. “My grandfather and I would hop on the Grand bus and go to the Children’s Museum or Navy Pier or just wander around. There was usually candy involved for me. Then we’d come back and he and my grandmother would make us dinner.”

Shahsavarani first met Lo Bianco when she was a teenager and he took a job in the family business, which had transitioned into a private-label food manufacturer, that once filled the deli cases at Jewel. She knew him as a chef whose versatility extended far beyond high-end Italian food.

Shahsavarani worked as a flight attendant for the travel perks, but mainly so she could get time off to visit her grandparents. After they passed away last year, she’d begun looking for something new. “I always wanted a casual cafe,” she says. “I like hospitality, which I guess a flight attendant is in line with.”

Her father suggested they join forces with Lo Bianco and open a dual Persian-Italian ghost kitchen, and the chef’s training began under the eye of her aunt Farideh, a skilled home cook and celebrated visual artist on an extended visit from Tehran.

“I fell in love with the food,” says Lo Bianco. “The family helped me a lot. Every day they teach me more and more. All the spices. How to use the saffron. How to cook the eggplants.” Lo Bianco became intimate with the importance of an abundance of fresh herbs—he uses nearly a dozen on the menu, including dill, parsley, cilantro, mint, tarragon, and fenugreek. Rice plays a critical role as well. It appears in four different dishes on the tasting menu—five if you count the rice noodles in the dessert sorbet.

An interior shot of Maman Zari
Credit: Sandy Noto for Chicago Reader

As they were looking for spaces, they pivoted when they found and fell in love with the Kedzie Avenue spot, former home to Semiramis and Lebanon Bites. Suddenly a Persian ghost kitchen operating in the shadow of Noon-O-Kabab and Kabobi didn’t seem like such a great idea.  

Plus they wanted to introduce guests to a broader sweep of Persian food and feature uncommon, seasonally appropriate dishes.

“We could’ve done a la carte,” says Shahsavarani. But you’re not necessarily going to get people to try new things. “With a tasting, you’re kind of forcing people to step outside of their comfort zone once they decide they’re going to eat here. We already had an array of recipes to choose from. We started narrowing them down, like, ‘Which of these is attractive?’ And which of these are not being done around here? Which of these flavors can Matteo take and do something fun with?’”

Austin, Texas, chef Amir Hajimaleki has hosted a few Persian tasting menu pop-ups in recent years, ahead of a planned brick-and-mortar. In London, chef Yuma Hashemi recently remade his French dominant Drunken Butler into the multicourse modern Tehran_Berlin, but as far as I can tell, that’s Maman Zari’s only competition in the prix fixe space.

I booked a ticket for one of Maman Zari’s soft opening seatings. That’s something I wouldn’t do if this were a critical restaurant review. And I want to leave out some of the surprises, but I can say it’s one of the most interesting, engaging, and least tedious multicourse meals I’ve eaten my way through.

It starts with a small, crispy, frittata-like potato-egg cake called kuku sibzamani, usually something one would eat in a sandwich, but here it’s plated with thin, pickled cucumber and a dollop of the northern Iranian herbal condiment known as dalar. The mirza ghasemi comes with a shared plate of mixed micro herbs, a delicate approximation of sabzi khordan, the mountain of fresh herbs that typically accompanies traditional Persian meals. A single lamb chop with a swipe of tomato sauce and a molded dome of saffron rice is an easy, late-course reference to the meaty mountains of rice that fill the seats up the street.

Lo Bianco employs a few by-now-familiar modernist tricks to set some of these dishes apart. The watermelon on the salad course is vacuum compressed to give it the appearance of fresh, raw tuna. There’s a clear, jiggly, spherified blob of sweet lime juice that sits atop the rosewater rice noodle sorbet, faloodeh. The tahdig chips are simply made by pureeing saffron-stained basmati rice and spreading it to dehydrate and break into shatteringly snackable crisps.

Maman Zari
4639 N. Kedzie

Shahsavarani says that though Iran is hardly a dry country, it was still a challenge to develop wine pairings that weren’t entirely dependent on the whites that go better with the inherent sweetness and herbaceousness of Persian cuisine. Still, she found a few reds for the later courses, including a couple of Italian bottles, in honor of Lo Bianco. There’s also a small cocktail list with drinks named for Iranian cities, including the Gonabad Gin, a bewitching, golden-stirred mix of saffron gin and poppy-infused amaro.

Relative to other upscale tasting menus around town, Maman Zari is a steal: $85 for eight courses, $45 for the wine pairing. It passes like a breeze too, in about two and a half hours under Farideh Shahsavarani’s abstract acrylic paintings, all of which makes me plenty interested in stepping outside my Persian food comfort zone for the future fall, winter, and spring menus.