The airspace in the open, multilevel faux-Victorian sports bar Old Town Social is so thoroughly and discordantly saturated with flat-screen TV signals I’m convinced the design scheme is intended to simulate the internal torments of a schizophrenic. Some sight lines are so crowded by moving images that it’s almost like being in a fun house hall of mirrors. It’s a painfully annoying environment to have to endure to get a taste of chef Jared Van Camp’s terrific house-made charcuterie.
Van Camp, a onetime Blackbird sous chef, moved on from there to serve directly under Rick Tramonto at the late Osteria di Tramonto in Wheeling, where cured meats had a special place in the lineup. At Old Town Social, they have a special place right by the front door, where links hang conspicuously over a vintage meat slicer.
It’s high time this art was allowed to flourish in Chicago, where a restrictive regulatory environment forces many practitioners to work underground. With ten different selections at the nucleus of his menu, Van Camp has moved into the vanguard, using local heritage pork and offering it at accessible prices, $16 for a “collection” of four servings. The choices are varied: longer-cured salamis like spicy soppressata and aromatic finocchiona share the bill with rillettes, country paté, and headcheese (unthreateningly listed in Italian, as coppa di testa) as well as two beefier options (pastrami and peperone). Complementing these meats are a dozen mostly raw-milk cheeses from surrounding states (and a few from beyond), themselves meant to be sampled with a few of a dozen more counterpoints—try the smoky grape must-cooked candied pumpkin arrope.
Starters, salads, sandwiches, and sides make up the rest of the menu, and they’re not as consistent. Thin, crispy hand-cut Belgian-style frites were just about perfect, and harissa-sauced duck wings were a supersized improvement on buffalo-style chicken wings. But a butternut squash soup was as intolerably sweet and thick as cupcake frosting, and the sandwiches I tried were overdressed: the muffaletta would’ve been a great vehicle for the charcuterie if not for the superfluous egg salad, and a battered whitefish sandwich was sloppy with emulsified egg sauce.
Old Town Social is a beer-focused bar, with 16 offerings on draft, many more bottles, and a short seasonal cocktail menu—but Van Camp’s curing operation is the ace in the hole. —Mike Sula
For three years chef Jason Paskewitz struggled to turn the former Jazz Record Mart space on Wabash into the expansive Jackson Park, an opulent dining room that would’ve been poised to hold its own against Sixteen, its neighbor in Trump Tower. But when that project finally tanked last year, he set his sights on something cozier. His new spot, Gemini Bistro, in a corner storefront at Lincoln and Dickens, is all about comfort, from the warm chocolate-and-caramel color scheme to the deep, dark booths to the American bistro menu. A cream-free tomato soup (served with a bite-size grilled cheese sandwich) packed the concentrated flavor of a consomme into something much heartier; a salad of roasted beets and microgreens atop a schmear of goat cheese was similarly clean, simple, and successful—if scanty. And the scallop entree, three pan-seared bivalves on a rich mashed potato puree with a lemon beurre blanc, was small but excellent, a sophisticated balance of texture and flavor.
These hits make misfires like the duck confit nachos downright mystifying. A basket of greasy tortilla chips dusted with dry, gamy, stringy duck and sprinkled sparsely with mango salsa and queso fresco, the dish failed as both concept and comfort food. Thankfully the menu appears to include few other experimental land mines, skewing for the most part toward bistro standards like steak frites, roasted salmon, organic chicken, and an eight-ounce burger on a pretzel roll that, at $10, looks to be a pretty good deal.
A couple complaints about the otherwise relaxed ambiance: If you’re going for the upscale bistro crowd, why the giant flat-screen TV over the bar? And what’s up, as my friend asked, with the artsy photo of a naked, shaved Charlize Theron positioned directly over the men’s room urinal? —Martha Bayne
Is it a restaurant or a sports bar? A gleaming open kitchen with a Moretti pizza oven dominates one side of the newly redone Orvieto Pizzeria & Wine Bar dining room, inside Green Dolphin Street, but the plasma TVs ringing the dining area are inescapable from any of the mahogany-toned tables. On my visit only a handful of those were occupied, yet men noisily talking about the multiple games in progress made the vibe very barlike. So the cooking, by chef Nino Coronas (formerly of Pizza D.O.C.), came as a pleasant surprise, especially given the somewhat generic-looking Italian menu.
Of the more than a dozen pizzas, we tried the quattro stagioni, which arrived with the puffed, blistered crust spilling over the sides of the large plate. The shaved prosciutto crudo, fresh mushrooms, pitted black olives, and artichokes were high quality, even if they were evenly distributed over the smear of tomato sauce and melt of fresh mozzarella rather than placed in the traditional four sections. Grigliattina mista, one of a handful of hot appetizers, brought together carefully grilled shrimp, baby octopus, and tender squid on a bed of greens with a restrained drizzle of balsamic reduction. Pastas, listed as primi piatti but sized as main courses, ran to the familiar except for the gnocchetti sardi, which reflects the chef’s Sardinian heritage. Homey and satisfying, the firm baby gnocchi were enveloped by a robust tomato-based lamb ragout finished with pecorino cheese. Ravioli di ricotta, filled with slightly watery Swiss chard and hardly any cheese, were less successful.
We skipped the secondi: four variations on chicken, two on veal, a pork chop, and tilapia or salmon. Buffalo wings and a burger are available for the bar-food crowd, and select ten-inch pizzas are $5 during Monday night football. I usually don’t go for tiramisu, but the not-too-sweet version recommended by the helpful server was a winner, as was the croccantino, ultrarich zabaione ice cream with nuts. While the two-page wine list isn’t likely to win awards, it’s affordable and offers about two dozen wines by the glass. —Anne Spiselman
[Editor’s note: Orvieto closed in 2010.]