There’s something perfectly peak Wicker Park about a rigorously executed old-world Italian pastificio that offers zoodles in meat sauce along with casarecce, chiusoni, and lumache. I’ve lurked outside the Division Street storefront window of Tortello long enough to see those rare pasta shapes hand-formed by humans, but it seems the zucchini noodles are prepped in back, far away from the authenticity police but no more than a meatball’s throw from a hundred keto-crazed stroller moms.
Tortello is in some ways a throwback to what Division Street used to be, nestled more comfortably on the same block next to the old Alliance Bakery and Zakopane than it is to Target and Starbucks. It’s the brainchild of Italian expat Dario Monni and his Chicago-born spouse, Jill Gray, who imagine a time and place when you went to one place for your pasta, one place for your pastry, and one place for your boilermaker.
Putting live humans on stage in the window making pasta is a promotional act worthy of P.T. Barnum, just as mesmerizing but far more appetizing than ogling a Fiji mermaid.
“I was looking for a big window,” says Monni. “If I have a beautiful piece of art is it gonna go in the bathroom or the living room?”
And unlike a carny act, the display is meant to highlight the thorough effort the couple has made, going so far as to host Lilla Simone, a real Italian grandma and sfoglina, or pasta maker, to train the staff. Simone has since returned to Puglia, but the daily results of her three proteges are on grand display under the glass counter in this slim space: flour-dusted ivory tangles of bucatini, piled paccheri, and/or coils of fusilli, all sold by the pound next to containers of sauce.
But you can also choose to stay put, order one of a half dozen made-to-order pasta dishes, and stake a claim on a stool behind the sfoglina in the window (though if you’re ordering zucchini noodles in a pasta shop, I suggest you eat your shame at one of the less prominent tables near the back).
Even by Italian standards, the pasta prepared and served in-house under the supervision of executive chef Duncan Biddulph (Lula, Rootstock, the Kinmont) is assiduously al dente. Chewy nubs of ribbed chiusoni nestle in a golden, mellow, sausage-spackled saffron cream; prosciutto-stuffed, mushroom sauce-slathered capelli del prete (“hats of the priest”) audibly snap on contact with dental enamel. The signature tortelli is dressed with a classic northern Italian profile—sage, butter, and crushed hazelnuts—but filled with a gooey burst of burrata, a southern Italian cheese in origin.
The last bit jumped out at a certain pasta brownshirt of my acquaintance who was offended that a cheese defined by its cool, fresh liquidity would be imprisoned by dough and compromised by boiling water like some lowly pierogi—but unless you’re a cheese maker it’s difficult to get mad about it.
After leaving Lula, Biddulph reportedly took an immersive tour of the Boot, and at the moment this has contributed to a few simple, hyperseasonal, local, and superflavorful vegetable sides, such as chunks of lightly sauteed eggplant tossed with nutty green chickpeas and ricotta salata, or bitter rapini with meaty vinegar-cooked and olive oil-preserved mushrooms and neonata, a briny, spicy Calabrian condiment of baby fish and chile oil.
Tall, airy focaccia with a discernible crunch and smeared with house-made ricotta and Wisconsin honey is a standout ancillary carb, though other bites—Castelvetrano olives or Reggiano and balsamic or a seasonal granita of the day—provide more balance. Less perishably, a focused collection of Italian beers, wines, and digestivos can complete an idyllic session in this specialized, immersive pasta performance.
Making tortelli at Tortello