I've been working with a new dealer in the South Loop area of downtown Chicago. Both partners are near-southside Chicago guys who have turned me on to a number of eating places in the area that I wasn't familiar with. One of their favorite places to dine is a small neighborhood restaurant - Cafe Bionda - that serves Italian food. After a meeting one evening, we took the trip from their store to Cafe Bionda for dinner.
When I asked one of the guys how long Cafe Bionda had been in business, he sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't know. Ten years or so. We've been coming here for ten years and it was pretty new when we first started coming here, so it can't be too much older than that." Cafe Bionda was founded by Gerard Burke and Joe Farina. Farina had been a corporate chef for the Rosebud restaurants in the Chicago area and he partnered up with Burke to start Cafe Bionda. Gerard Burke was the one who designed the interior of the restaurant on S. State St. Bionda means "blonde woman" in Italian and the restaurant is presumably named after Burke's wife, Kim, who is, indeed, a blonde.
About 2009, Farina left the fold at Cafe Bionda and went to work for one of Steve Harris' Francesca restaurants in the Chicago area - Salatino's in Little Italy. However, I found that Salatino's had closed up recently and I don't know where Farina landed. And I couldn't find who is the current chef at Cafe Bionda. But I believe that Gerard and Kim Burke are still the owners of the establishment.
(At one point there were two other Cafe Bionda locations - one up on N. Milwaukee in Wicker Park, about a half block from one of my dealers; and one in the Financial District in Chicago's Loop. The Wicker Park location closed in late 2009, while the Financial District location - called Bionda's To Go - closed in the Spring of 2011.)
There is a small parking lot behind Cafe Bionda, but it was full when we got there. We cut our losses and pulled up in front of the building just south of the corner of Archer and S. State (see map) and had the valet park the car. The area is a mix of buildings that had been rehabbed into upscale condos, restaurants and shops. I had no idea that this area even existed in Chicago as I rarely travel south of Roosevelt Road during my travels to Chicago.
The interior of Cafe Bionda is long and narrow with a section bar on the right as you come in and the dining area on the left. The two guys from my dealer were greeted warmly by the staff - one of them estimated that he eats there at least three times a week - and we were seated at a table along the wall in the cozy and ornate dining room.
Cafe Bionda's lighting was so subdued that I wouldn't have been able to get a picture of either the interior or the food without using my flash on my cellphone. And Cafe Bionda isn't one of those places that you can take pictures with a flash without annoying other people in the process. So, unfortunately, I have no pictures of food from my visit. (Picture above right courtesy Trip Advisor.)
We were given menus and our waiter told us of the specials they had at Cafe Bionda that evening. One of the specials was a thick cut New York strip steak served with garlic mashed potatoes. I had my eye on the pasta because another server brought out a basket of bread and a bowl of seasoned marinara. The marinara sauce was outstanding. We quickly gobbled up the available bread and marinara as both were outstanding.
Going through the wine list, one of my guests picked out a bottle of the BonAnno cabernet. BonAnno is a relatively new winery in the Napa Valley region who sources a lot of their grapes. I'd never had it before and once it opened up, it was a very good cabernet.
Getting down to the meal at hand, I had trouble figuring out exactly what I wanted for dinner. The first thing that caught my eye was the Rigatoni Genovese mixed with spicy sausage and a creamy tomato sauce. "Nanna's Gravy" featured pot roast-style beef mixed with rigatoni noodles and the wonderful marinara sauce that we had with the bread. I thought about the Veal Saltimboca for a moment - veal medallions with prosciutto ham, sage, Parmesan and mozzarella, and cooked in a white wine sauce. I briefly thought about the ricotta cheese-stuff pasta shells served with a tomato vodka cream sauce. But I kept going back to Nanna's Gravy and the Rigatoni Genovese.
When it came to take our orders, I had the other guys go first. Both of them picked the New York strip steak special. That put some pressure on me when the server came to me. I told him I was torn between the Nanna's Gravy and the Rigatoni Genovese. My two guests and the waiter all immediately said, "Rigatoni!" The waiter said, "The pot roast is very good, but if you're looking for a zesty taste, go with the Rigatoni." Zesty is exactly what I'm looking for in my food, so I went with the Rigatoni Genovese.
For starters, I got a caprese salad. It featured large beefsteak tomato slices topped with fresh buffalo mozzarella and fresh chopped basil. However, they only had olive oil on the caprese salad and no aged balsamic vinegar. The balsamic vinegar is what makes a good caprese salad in my book and this one was sort of "blah!" I should have asked for some balsamic vinegar. Next time...
Our main entrees showed up and I wish I would have been able to get a picture of the steaks. Those things had to be 20 ounces, at least. They were well over an inch thick and I was told they were tender and flavorful. Good Italian restaurants can really do a good steak if they put their mind to it.
And I wish I would have been able to get a picture of the huge bowl of the Rigatoni Genovese. There was absolutely no way that I was going to be able to finish the whole thing. It had chunks of ground spicy Italian sausage mixed in with the rigatoni pasta. The tomato cream sauce was very good and helped take some of the spicy edge off the very spicy sausage. I got about halfway through the dish before I began to just concentrate on the sausage. When our server came back, he asked if I wanted to have it boxed up to take with me. No, it just wouldn't have tasted good reheated and without the sausage. Cafe Bionda impressed me with their food, their service and the ambiance of the place.
Cafe Bionda would be a wonderful place for a first date or a romantic dinner, or for a get-together with friends, or for a business meal like we had on my first visit there. In the warmer months, Cafe Bionda has sidewalk seating for lunch and dinner. I need to scout out more places to eat south of Roosevelt because of all the gentrification that has been going on in the area south of the loop over the past few years. A lot of new places have popped up and I'm sure there are a few more surprises like Cafe Bionda that I'll find.