I had to stay on the far south side of Chicago recently and I was in sort of a quandary as where to get a meal that evening. The lady at the front desk of the hotel told me, "There's a great little Italian place just down the way, walking distance from here. It's called Ottimo (OH-teem-OH). The people who do the Francesca's restaurants around Chicago? They are behind this place." It had been awhile since I'd had pasta so I made the short walk across the way to the restaurant.
Osteria Ottimo is located back in a strip mall along S. LaGrange Road in Orland Park, just down the way from Orland Square Mall (see map). As the lady at the hotel told me, Osteria Ottimo was founded by Mia Francesca owner Scott Harris. The first of what is now 20 Francesca restaurants around the greater Chicagoland area, Mia Francesca opened 20 years ago on North Clark in Chicago. One of the very first posts I ever wrote on Road Tips over six years ago was about the Francesca's restaurants. (See that post here.) It was long before I settled into this format and voice with Road Tips, so compared to some of the essays I do these days, it's a pretty short entry.
One of the unique things about Harris and his Franchesca franchises is that he maintains a 51% stake in the restaurants while giving the head chef the other 49% to run the business as his own. The menus at the Francesca's restaurants are similar, but Harris allows his chef partners to do some of their own things in the kitchen, as well.
Partnering with Harris at Osteria Ottimo is Patrick Concannon, a restaurant industry veteran who also has a stake in the Don Juan's contemporary Mexican restaurant in Chicago. Concannon's family started Don Juan's in 1983 and the restaurant features a lively twist on traditional Mexican foods. Harris and Concannon are both from the far south side of Chicago and opened Osteria Ottimo in January of 2009.
The restaurant is not that large, but still can seat over 100 people comfortably. There is a small bar area to the right when you walk in. There's sort of a rustic Italian feel to the place with subdued lighting, high ceilings, brick walls and an open kitchen toward the back. I sat at a table along the wall opposite the bar area. The restaurant was about half full that evening, but there were a lot of people at the bar. I ordered up a Samuel Adams Winter Lager and took a look through the menu.
At first glance, the menu has the usual antipasti, salads and Italian entrees. But it's what is on the menu that made it interesting. They had a Vongole al Forno antipasti that featured baked clams in seasoned breadcrumbs with garlic, oregano and parmesan cheese. That sounded awfully rich. They also had a sausage and peppers platter. I ended up getting an order of their calamari as a starter - you could ordered them fried or grilled - and they're served with garlic aoili sauce or hot giardiniera. I got them fried (although grilled was interesting) and the garlic aoili sauce.
For salads, Osteria Ottimo features a roasted beet and goat cheese plate, along with a caprese salad with fresh tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella cheese. I almost got that, but the calamari was going to be a nice starter for the meal.
After the waitress brought out the calamari - which was very good, by the way - I was ready to order my dinner. The linguine frutti di mare - linguine with clams, shrimp, mussels and calamari in a spicy tomato sauce caught my eye. So did the crespelle - crepe filled chicken, spinach, and Tallegio cheese and paired with either parmesan cream sauce or a Porcini mushroom sauce. I almost pulled the trigger on the crespelle with the mushroom sauce, but then I saw the Fettuccine Funghi Salsiccia - fettuccine pasta tossed with sauteed wild mushroom slices, sweet Italian sausage, a light marscapone cream cheese with white truffle oil and fresh herbs. Yes! That's what I want.
My waitress brought out the entree after awhile and I found myself staring at a large bowl of pasta, sausage and mushrooms with a dollop of marscapone on top. The pasta was swimming in the very light white truffle oil sauce.
From the first bite, I knew I had a winner. The sausage was sliced from a link and had a nice smoky and tangy taste to it. The mushrooms were sort of sneaky in their taste - on the tongue there wasn't much to the taste. But after a bit, the earthiness of the mushrooms took hold and it was a pleasing taste. The pasta was cooked perfectly - not too mushy that you can get with some pasta restaurants.
I wasn't able to finish all the pasta, but as the waitress pointed out I did get all the "good stuff." "I love this pasta dish," she told me as she picked up my bowl to take back to the kitchen. "And I do the same thing. I eat all the good stuff like the sausage and the mushrooms first, then try to finish the pasta. I never can."
Years ago, I used to be very averse to restaurants - especially Italian restaurants - that were situated in strip malls. That comes from a time nearly 25 years ago when good strip mall restaurants were few and far between. As more restaurants came into existence, however, and many of them went into ever increasing strip malls across America, I've since softened my bias toward these restaurants. Osteria Ottimo was as good as many of the fine Italian restaurants in the Chicagoland area. The service from my waitress was excellent - she didn't hover, nor did she forget me as often happens once the meal is served. The food was well above average for an Italian restaurant and the menu, alone, was interesting enough that it makes me want to get back to Ottimo at some point. However, since I don't have any dealers on the south side of Chicago - yet - it may be awhile before I get back there. But, then again, it's only a couple miles north of Interstate 80 and on trips to South Bend and Fort Wayne I can always make a stop back into Osteria Ottimo on my way by.