Chicago is blessed by two Little Italy’s, though it is difficult to qualify either Taylor Street or Oakley Avenue as a distinctly Italian neighborhood. Both have several Italian restaurants, but with UIC expanding its presence west along Taylor Street and the Mexican communities of Pilsen and Little Village surrounding Oakley Avenue, neither have many Italian residents. The restaurants of Oakley Avenue have remained some of the city’s best for Italian, however, and the neighborhood known variously as Heart of Italy or The Other Little Italy survives on the 2400 block of Oakley as a four-chambered heart: Ignotz, Bacchanalia, La Fontanella, and Bruna’s all continue to serve chicken vesuvio, Chicago’s Italian specialty. To this day, the restaurants are frequented by regulars who scoff at the idea that deep-dish pizza is the city’s “Italian food” of choice.
Best Way to Feel Like a Regular Without Necessarily Being a Regular
Most of the Italian restaurants on South Oakley Avenue feel like they’ve been open at least a hundred years, but even the oldest, like Bruna’s (est. 1933), are a few decades away. Bacchanalia is relatively young by these standards, having opened only in ’79, but the restaurant seems to have retained some of the same staff it started with over thirty years ago: waitresses know the names of many customers’ in the small dining room, a mix of young families and old couples, and even if they don’t know your name they’ll make you feel right at home. The menu is straightforward Italian–chicken, veal, pasta–but it’s done well, and their special Dante’s New York strip, a strip steak bathed in a red sauce with capers and olives, is a dish that may well have come from your madre’s kitchen. 2413 S. Oakley Ave. Monday-Thursday, 11am-9:30pm; Friday, 11am-10:30pm; Saturday, 4pm-10:30pm; Sunday, 3pm-9pm. (773)254-6555. bacchanaliainchicago.com (Harrison Smith)
Best Alleyway Italian
The valets out on the street will tell you it’s right there, to just take a right and you’ll be inside, but inevitably you’ll try the locked front door a few times before realizing they’re really telling you that it’s right there, down the alley. Inside there are trophies on the mantle and paper on the tables, a strange mix of fancy and casual that really doesn’t matter when they bring out a clove of garlic for you and your table to crush, slice, or rub onto your bread bowl. This is a true Italian joint–though pizza is on the menu don’t bother ordering it. Stick to the chicken and pasta, try the spicy calamari special if they’ve got it, and when you’ve paid the bill and bit into those complimentary chocolate-covered cherries that come with the check, walk back out into the alley knowing even if you were to get wacked, you’d die happy. 2421 S. Oakley Ave. Tuesday-Thursday, 11am-9:30pm; Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday, 4pm-11pm; Sunday, 3pm-9pm (773)579-0300 (Harrison Smith)