“Ten thousand Mexican restaurants in Pilsen. Let’s do some Italian.” Listen to chef Cesar Pineda and it’s clear that he opened his new restaurant with every intention of bringing something unique and exciting to the neighborhood. He did. Ciao Amore opened last July under a cheery red sign facing out onto West 18th Street. Inside the atmosphere is bright and airy, with wooden floors and colorful touches in the decoration and the artwork that lines the walls. The food is exceptional and its honest personal touches set it apart.
The menu is full of classic Italian meat and fish dishes, antipasti, and a mix-and-match of pasta and sauces, both made in-house. We started with a salad of blanched green beans, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and a bold amount of fresh minced garlic, covered in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Next was chicken breast, perfectly moist and doused in a rich and dark porcini mushroom cream sauce, and house-made ricotta-stuffed ravioli–one of the chef’s favorites, and unanimously one of ours, too.
Pineda takes a lot of pride in his gnocchi, and he should–they’re so smooth it’s hard to tell where the potato stops and the asiago pesto stuffing begins. The gnocchi would be good with anything, but we tried it with the arrabbiata sauce, which beautifully highlights the usual combination of red pepper, eggplant, and onion with the addition of jalapeÃ±o peppers. The day’s special of tricolor tortellini stuffed with mascarpone cheese was a little inconsistent in texture, and the good cream sauce with ham and peas tasted plain alongside the other sauces, but the worst we could possibly call it is “the least exciting part.”
We couldn’t finish a huge plate full of calamari, shrimp, maki, clams, and mussels in a spicy marinara sauce, but not because we didn’t want to. The seafood was fresh and the flavors were robust and balanced. We did have room for dessert, though: The menu is limited, but the house-made tiramisu is outstanding and gets a lot of complexity from a layer of coffee grounds.
Ciao Amore is an upscale establishment, but for the quality of its food the value is exceptional. Generously portioned pastas and entrees range from $15 to $22, and the restaurant is always BYOB with no corkage fee. Service was flawless: our waiter was on top of everything, thoroughly knowledgeable about the food and clearly possessing a personal connection to the restaurant.
Finding this kind of serious Italian cuisine in Pilsen might sound like a contradiction. It’s not. Ciao Amore reflects as much of Pilsen’s complex and vibrant character as the panaderÃas and taquerÃas that line the streets around it. Every staff member I talked to lived in the neighborhood and all of them called the chef by his first name. Even the art on the walls is as local as it gets: Pineda himself painted many of the abstract and colorful pieces that line the walls, and several more are creations of another cook, Frank Diaz. There are plans to bring in more pieces from local Latino art collective Mestizarte. Pineda has lived in the neighborhood for three years and his love for the area is evident. “This is the garden of the downtown area,” he says. “And why work so hard to bring outsiders to Pilsen when the talent, and the people, are all right here?” On a Saturday night there are a few tables of yuppies sampling dishes, a middle-aged couple dining on simple pasta with red sauce and probably celebrating an anniversary, an elderly Hispanic couple, and an apparent regular sitting solo at the front window table reading a paper. Pineda periodically comes out of the kitchen and moves from table to table, explaining his dishes and animating his customers with gentle shouts of “Mangia! Mangia!” (“Eat! Eat!”)
Part Italian and part Venezuelan, Pineda’s culinary influences go back to childhood. He learned the Italian classics from his mother, but there are plans to include Venezuelan items on the menu. With the closing of the North Side’s Caracas Grill there are currently no Venezuelan restaurants in Chicago, and that’s a gap Pineda would like to fill. One way or another, the menu will be changing soon. “There’s too much up here, it has to come out,” Pineda says laughing and rubbing his head with both hands.
Ciao Amore can compete with the best Italian cuisine in Chicago, and at the same time its local commitment means it doesn’t really need to. The neighborhood connections here are as rich and complex as the flavors on the menu, but the love of food that holds them together is simple. “We are here to stay. We are here to make good food, because…” Pineda smiles and pats his belly. “I love to eat.”
1134 W. 18th St. Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday, 4pm-11pm; Sunday, 3pm-9pm.