Enoteca Roma

2146 W. Division


On a recent evening at Enoteca Roma, a laid-back wine bar, or enoteca, that’s the newest extension of Letizia’s Natural Bakery in Wicker Park, bartender and wine buyer Patrick Chizeck pours me his Sideways flight: four wines from Santa Barbara vineyards featured in that movie. He darts around the bar, grabbing bottles and talking so fast it’s hard to make out all the words.

“The guy who makes this has got the craziest mullet,” he says, pouring from a 2003 bottle of Au Bon Climat pinot noir. Of the next sample, an Andrew Murray Syrah: “The wine is, like, fighting with you; it’s got all these crazy ideas.” I ask him to describe it using typical wine jargon, and he winces. He says he’s got a good memory for tastes and names, but verbal descriptions aren’t his forte. Besides, he argues, highfalutin winespeak is of dubious worth. “Fifty percent of the time it’s subjective,” he says, though he acknowledges that occasionally words work: for example, a good Burgundy really should smell like cow manure, so the industry euphemism, “barnyard,” makes sense.

Fabio Sorano, who co-owns Enoteca Roma and Letizia’s with his mom, Letizia Sorano, hired Chizeck because he knew he was a “cork dork.” Chizeck doesn’t dispute the label even as he cheerfully pooh-poohs oenophilic pretensions. (You’ll catch him aerating his wine for a purer taste, but as for, say, scrutinizing its hue, he says, “I mean, you can look at the color if you have a white tablecloth at home and you’re really bored. Otherwise, just shut up and drink your wine.”) Chizeck, who’s 26, has been in the wine business since he was 21, when he quit a job at a Caribou Coffee to work at the Wine Crier, a now-closed shop on Clybourn, and started going to industry tastings, where he was usually the youngest person in the room. (That’s changed in the past couple years, he says.) Later he waited tables and bought wine at Via Carducci and helped Giovanni Scalzo set up Via Due. A regular patron of Letizia’s, Chizeck was aware of Enoteca Roma’s opening and asked if they needed any help. Sorano was about to hire a prior applicant–from a pool of 30–when he received Chizeck’s call and changed his mind on the spot. It turned out Sorano was a fan of Chizeck’s as well–he’d admired his wine selections at Via Carducci, which serves Letizia’s cakes.

Letizia’s, popular for its margarine-free muffins, panini, cookies, and cakes, has been a Division Street fixture since 1998. Fabio Sorano had planned and sketched a design for a wine bar addition over four years ago, but the building’s landlord wouldn’t let him make it. In March 2003 Letizia Sorano solved that problem by buying the building; by this past October, Enoteca Roma was ready for business.

The enoteca connects to Letizia’s cafe and back garden entrance by a short hallway. It offers Letizia’s standard menu plus more than 20 varieties of bruschetta, whole pizzas, dinner salads, and a number of meat, cheese, bread, and olive combinations in the tradition of rustic Roman cuisine. Simple snacks–two ounces of olives or a plate of bread, walnuts, and grapes–pair well with a few glasses of wine. Larger plates include a Salamini Flight–salami and a trio of saucisson, served with grainy mustard, roasted red peppers, and Italian bread–and the Antipasto Micki, which includes three slices each of capicola, Genoa salami, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and focaccia, plus a few olives. It’s enough for a light meal or ample snack for two. Several cheeses can be ordered individually, or you can try the cheese flight: Morbier, Brie, Cantalet, and goat cheese served on a cutting board with grapes, figs, quince jelly, and dried apricots.

While Letizia’s has a warm, yellowy, lived-in feel, Enoteca Roma is dimmer and less cluttered, but not much swanker. You’re likely to sip pinot to the sounds of Blondie or Wall of Voodoo instead of the soft jazz or slow techno that Chizeck associates with the wine bar aesthetic. Enoteca Roma’s philosophy can be summed up, says Sorano, as “you can get PBR or you can get Pahlmeyer,” the former being $2.75 a bottle, the latter a Bordeaux blend that at $200 is the most expensive offering. Chizeck and Sorano want their place to be an alternative to the typical wine bar–where, they joke, you risk a withering glance if you look or act too much like a newbie.

“Every single wine bar claims they want to take away the mystification [of wine],” Sorano grouses. “Then why are you gonna give me attitude? They try to create a relaxed atmosphere, but then they play classical music or they have a dress code or they only serve wine and top-shelf liquors. They don’t serve beer; they don’t serve tap beverages. We like everything to be more casual.” He maintains that at the enotecas in Rome, where he lived until he came to the States for college (his mom followed two years later), it’s not like that: the particular wine of a region is served by the half liter; you order red or white. Guys who pull up in Ferraris mingle with laborers, he says. “It’s a very mixed environment.”

On any given day at Enoteca Roma between 30 and 45 wines are available by the glass–Chizeck says the quantity is meant to make sampling and learning about wine easier. (They store open bottles using argon, an inert gas that’s a little heavier than air–the argon settles on top of the liquid and keeps oxygen from spoiling the wine.) There are several glasses for $6 or less, such as the Amaroo Shiraz, a smooth Australian wine that sells for $5.50 a glass, $21 a bottle.

Chizeck pours me the final Sideways sample, a 2001 cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon/Syrah blend called Generation Red that’s made by the Hitching Post winery, which is Miles’s favorite place to get tanked in the film (and where he meets Maya, his love interest). The wine is not my favorite of the four–fairly tannic, it leaves a funky dry feeling in my mouth–but I feel sort of special drinking it, since the winery has sold out due to the film’s success. Chizeck claims to have bought three of the last remaining cases in Chicago. He’s still courting certain makers who want their bottles placed only in high-end restaurants–he mentions the Araujo, Screaming Eagle, and Colgin wineries. “In a couple of years I’ll be able to get some of that stuff,” he says. “I’m building slowly.”

They’ve already gotten wines from several elite boutique wineries: Pahlmeyer, Littorai, Stags’ Leap. “In a cork-dork kind of way, we feel like we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!” says Sorano. “That’s the stuff I never thought we’d be able to get.”

–Susannah Felts


Last week we ran a picture of Arun Sampanthavivat and identified him as Roland Liccioni. Let’s try this again: Above, left, is Liccioni. The guy on the right

is Sampanthavivat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.