You gotta have Heart

    MORE HOT 'HOODS:
   
  • Logan Square
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  • Heart of Italy
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  • When most Chicagoans think of the city's Italian district, they think of Taylor Street, in Little Italy. But there's another Italian enclave that's not as familiar: a two-block stretch of Oakley Avenue on the Near Southwest Side, in the Heart of Italy neighborhood.

    Nestled just east of Western Avenue between 23rd and 25th Places, the area traces its Northern Italian roots to the 1890s, when Tuscans settled in the neighborhood to take factory jobs at the McCormick Reaper Works on Blue Island Avenue.

    Today the charming Italian district is still home to several restaurants that pepper the otherwise mostly residential blocks. Italian food lovers continue to seek them out for their minestrone (the true sign of a good restaurant, it shouldn't be too tomatoey or sweet, according to one former neighborhood resident), handmade pastas and veal and shrimp specialties.

    One way to sample the neighborhood in a few bites is during the annual Heart of Italy Food and Wine Festival in June. Otherwise, here are a few of the neighborhood places to try:

    Bacchanalia. The tables in its small, dimly lit dining room may be a little close for comfort, but Bacchanalia draws an enthusiastic crowd, especially on weekends. The friendly waitresses, some of whom have been with the 23-year-old restaurant for almost as many years, are happy to point customers toward favorite dishes. Capellini marinara boasts a flavorful sauce laced with parmesan. Scampi alla Romana, a house specialty, pairs six large shrimp with marinara and is served on a bed of fettuccine. Seafood specials can range from frog legs Vesuvio to tilapia alla Toscana. The homemade cannoli is fresh but sweet. No credit cards accepted.

    Biaggio's. The new kid on the block, Biaggio's (which also has a Palos Hills location and soon will have one in Orland Park) opened about a year ago. The spacious restaurant features a faux streetscape of old Chicago in its main dining room. Entrees run the gamut from spaghetti and meatballs to zuppa de pesce. Try the rigatoni vodka, a colossal bowlful of noodles topped with marinara sauce spiked with vodka and mascarpone cheese. A decent chicken parmigiana comes with risotto and fresh broccoli. A kid-friendly option, the square noodles marinara is just what it sounds like: handmade pasta cut into squares and topped with a simple, basil-flecked sauce. The chocolate cigar (a chocolate tube filled with hazelnut mousse and accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream) is the signature dessert.

    Il Vicinato. A 19-year veteran of the area, Il Vicinato attracts a loyal and far-flung following. Specials are written on chalkboards in the simple, wood-paneled dining room, but there's plenty worth checking out on the regular menu, too, including the plump meat ravioli, whose oddball shapes give away its handmade status. Hearty-food fans might want to try the pasta Roger (named for a customer who concocted the dish), rigatoni with peas and spinach in alfredo sauce that's topped with a parmesan crust. The excellent tiramisu is homemade.

    La Fontanella. The small dining room of this 31-year-old spot (16 years under the current owners) has a charming, old-world feel thanks to the red- and green-checked tablecloths and flower-rimmed dishes that adorn the tables. Homemade pastas (try the spicy Toscana sauce over melt-in-your mouth gnocchi) are the draw here, as are the sausage and peppers and chicken Vesuvio. Crusty D'Amato's bread is served warm. La Fontanella makes kids feel welcome, too, with crayons, kiddie cocktails and child-size portions of pastas.

    Janet Franz is Editor of the Spring Dining Guide.

    Originally published May 1, 2002. Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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