I love finding old restaurants that are well known by the locals. During a recent trip to Chicago, I took a dealer of ours out to lunch at Via Veneto, a place that he was familiar with. Located on Lincoln Ave. in the far northwest side of the city in the Lincolnwood neighborhood (see map), I figured that I'd probably driven by the place a few times but had never really noticed it.
Tony Barbanente is the owner and head chef at Via Veneto. The restaurant has been in business for over 20 years, first with a location on Peterson Ave. and then in its present day location. The Barbanente family is involved in a number of upscale Italian restaurants in the Chicago area including the former La Donna restaurant, Amore Mio in Hoffman Estates and a new Mexican restaurant, Deseo, that will open this spring. The Barbanente's hail from the southeastern coast of Italy from the village of Mola di Bari. Many of the recipes they use in their restaurants come from their grandmother who was Sicilian. The ingredients they use at Via Veneto are fresh and they make their own pasta each day.
Parking for Via Veneto is available on the side streets off of Lincoln in a comfortable residential area. It was just after noon when we pulled up to Via Veneto and had to park a long block away from the restaurant. It was about a two minute walk to the restaurant from where we parked.
We were seated in Via Veneto's main dining room, a comfortable room with natural light coming through the windows. The sturdy tables were covered with white table cloths and the chairs were heavy and comfortable. We were given lunch menus by the hostess and a basket of fresh bread. Parmesan, oil and vinegar were available on the table.
Our waitress, a pleasant middle-aged woman, came over to ask us if we wanted any thing to drink. I asked my guest, Ricardo, if he wanted any wine with lunch. He said, "No, I'd better not. Wine will make me sleepy and I've got a lot of stuff to do this afternoon."
Ricardo warned me that the portions at Via Veneto were generous. I'd had a pretty good sized breakfast that morning, not thinking that we'd be going out for lunch. I really didn't want any pasta, even though some of the pasta dishes sounded pretty sweet. Actually, the lunch menu had a lot to choose from. The dinner menu at Via Veneto isn't much different from the lunch menu.
Ricardo, who is Phillipine by birth, ordered first and he got an appetizer of Carpaccio del Polpo - or in plain English, Octopus. He said, "Oh, man. This is good. You've got to give it a try." I wasn't too hopped up about eating cooked octopus, but I told him I'd give it a go. For his main entree, he got the mostaccoili lunch special - homemade mostaccioili pasta in Via Veneto's homemade marinara sauce. I ended up ordering one of their house salads and I got the veal piccata. I figured the veal - although plentiful - would be easy enough to eat after the big breakfast I had.
Our waitress brought out my salad and Ricardo's Carpaccio del Polpo. Well, it was certainly unlike anything I've ever seen in my life. It was swimming in a sauce of garlic, parsley and olive oil. Ricardo cut off a chunk and put it on my bread plate. I ate a couple bites and while it wasn't bad, I just don't overly care for the rubbery texture of octopus. Ricardo, however, was in heaven. "Oh, man! This is so good. This is exactly like what we used to have when I was growing up."
While my salad wasn't quite as interesting as Ricardo's octopus appetizer, it was still pretty good. I was happy with the basic oil and vinegar Italian dressing they had on the salad. Along with the homemade bread, it was a nice start to the meal.
Our entrees came out and Ricardo certainly wasn't kidding when he said the portions were generous at Via Veneto. I had three good sized pieces of veal topped with a lemon piccata sauce and capers. A broccoli and cauliflower crown along with sliced carrots garnished the plate. Before I took my first bite, I could tell this was going to be pretty damn good as it smelled just wonderful. And after my first bite, I knew that it was good. Very good. No, it was excellent. It was some of the best veal piccata I'd ever had. The veal was tender, the lemon piccata sauce was pungent, but it wasn't overpowering to the taste. The veal piccata was certainly a surprising pleasure.
Ricardo proclaimed his mostaccioli to be "excellent" as well. He said that he really liked their marinara sauce at Via Veneto. He said, "I don't quite know what they do, but it's great. I've tried to replicate it at home, and I can get it close. But they're using some things that I can't quite figure out."
All in all, my meal at Via Veneto was outstanding. I told Ricardo that this was the kind of place my wife would like to go to. We're both big on old world style Italian restaurants, run by real Italians who know how to cook. I told him that I'd have to bring my wife back to Via Veneto at some point. It's a hidden gem that I'm happy to have finally found.