Visiting Osteria Ottimo, a joint venture between Patrick Concannon (of Don Juan's restaurant in Chicago's
neighborhood) and Scott Harris (of the 20-locations-and-counting Mia Francesca empire), is not unlike attending the out-of-town debut of a Broadway-bound play.
The 10-month-old Italian concept occupies a 140-seat space that's part of an Orland Park strip mall (convenient for Concannon, who lives a half-mile away), but that's just for starters. The fledgling operation is prepping for a far bigger footprint, clearly designed with replication in mind. Indeed, Concannon has his second location already picked out.
"Once the economy recovers," he says, "the idea is to gut Don Juan's and put in two restaurants -- make Don Juan's a little smaller and wedge an Ottimo in there."
And after that, who knows? For now, however, Ottimo remains the exclusive property of the southwest suburbs, operating on the assumption that if Concannon and Harris can keep the locals happy, they'll be able to keep others happy.
Some pains have been taken to ensure that no one confuses Ottimo with any Francescas, near or far. Where Mia Francesca and its many siblings are urban cool and singles oriented, Ottimo goes for a more family-friendly feel. The interior is warm and homey, designed, Concannon says, "to feel like it's been here for 100 years," even if the view of the shopping-center courtyard suggests otherwise. Worn brick walls and paper place mats contribute to the well-worn look, and if the wood floors are insufficiently distressed, well, give 'em time. A long bar, its TVs tuned to the sports event of the moment, adds a neighborhood feel. Near the host stand, a chalkboard displays the day's specials and the weekly promotions, such as Lasagna Thursdays (when Concannon makes about 40 servings and sells every one) and Spaghetti and Meatballs Tuesday (served family style with salad and garlic bread for $12.98 adults, $4.98 children).
Show up on a different night and I'd recommend starting with one of the crispy-crust pizzas, particularly the bianco version topped with pecorino dolce and a few dribbles of truffle oil. Beef carpaccio is more than respectable here, topped with a salad's worth of arugula, tomatoes, mushrooms, capers and shaved parmesan.
Pastas include a daily risotto -- my peas-and-sausage version included good-tasting oven-dried tomatoes, and, praises be, was not overcooked -- and an array of creations so substantial you'd be well advised to order them in appetizer portions, which is what I did with a rich gnocchi -- housemade potato pillows awash in cream sauce with prosciutto and peas.
The entree list is dotted with classic Italian dishes, a respectable veal marsala among them. Tilapia gets treated the way the French treat skate wing: sauteed to a crispy-edged finish and served with capers and brown butter sauce, though Concannon's value-added version also has artichokes, asparagus and mushrooms.
You'll find some intriguing entrees on the specials board, though these can be hit or miss. A beef tenderloin one night was an oddity, the beef saddled with an overly sweet chianti sauce, next to a tall cylinder of potato whose hollow was filled with fontina fonduta. The thing looked like a science-fair exhibit. Braised short ribs, on the other hand, was the real deal, alongside parmesan-whipped potatoes and an understated red-wine sauce.
It has been years since I had tiramisu -- after the '90s, I'd pretty much reached my limit on espresso-soaked ladyfingers -- but Ottimo's version reminded me why this dessert was so insanely popular 10 years ago. Ottimo serves its version over chocolate sauce. As if this dish weren't rich enough.
The affogato dessert might be enjoyable in a different container; right now it's served in a tall fountain glass, filled so high that any attempt to eat the thing sends ice cream and espresso over the edge and onto the table. Affogato means "drowned," but that's not supposed to refer to the clientele.
Service is a plus. Concannon assembles the troops every afternoon for a combination food-tasting and culinary-history lesson, and the servers hit the dining room with the zeal of the newly proselytized. Even if wine service is a bit rough, I appreciate the enthusiasm.
Ottimo is treading familiar ground, but that seems to be the point -- to put out good, quality food that everybody understands. Concannon's hope is that familiarity, in this case, breeds copies. Lots of them.