A few weeks ago, I was having an evening meeting with the buyer at Abt Electronics in suburban Chicago. As the meeting was winding down, I asked him if he wanted to go out for a bite to eat. He surprisingly said, "Yeah, I'd like that and I want to treat YOU to dinner!" I don't have many buyers who are looking to take me out of dinner, so I couldn't protest too much. We ended up walking across the Abt parking lot to their design center stores and a restaurant called Via Classico. (see map)
For the past few years, the space that Via Classico is in was the old Viking Cooking School, run by the Viking appliance company. They decided to shut the doors in the Spring of 2012 due to lack of enrollment. One of their students, Renato Presta, was disheartened to see the place shut down. Presta's family had been involved in the food industry in various positions over the years. Along with his brother, Dominic, and his cousin, Micheal Mazzone, the trio leased the space from the Abt family to open their new restaurant/cooking school. They hired five instructors from the old Viking Cooking School, including Kathy O'Sullivan who they named head chef/instructor of the new Classico Cooking School.
The small restaurant, that isn't much larger than 1000 square feet, is sort of a casual/fast food type of Italian restaurant. Renato Presta has been encouraging families on the go to come in and get some of their Italian entrees to take home. But they have sit down space in the restaurant for people looking for a quick meal during the day or evening.
We walked into Via Classico just after 7 p.m. You order your food at the counter and they bring it out to you after it's made. The menu is not extensive at Via Classico, but it consists of a handful of appetizers, salads, soups, panini sandwiches, pasta entrees and dishes such as chicken parmesan and blackened tilapia. It's an alcohol free restaurant and I'm not certain if you can bring your own in, if you like. But it's more of a fast casual place than a sit-down, fine dining experience.
Standing at the counter, I was looking at one of their pasta entrees. Via Classico had an oven-baked rigatoni made with three Italian cheeses and a homemade marinara sauce that sounded interesting. The meat lasagna was made with five different types of Italian cheeses and then topped with a ground Italian sausage sauce. There was also a tri-color cheese-filled tortellini dish that I thought about for a moment, but decided against it since they were cheese-filled (I like meat filled tortellini).
I looked for a quick moment at the panini sandwiches and thought about getting "The Italian" - Genoa salami, mortadella with hot capicola and topped with mild provole cheese and served on a tomato ciabatta with roma tomatoes, red onions and a homemade aioli. That actually sounded pretty good.
The buyer told me, "I've gotten the shrimp linguine before and it was good. But tonight I think I'm going to try the lasagna." For an extra $1.99 he added a salad with a balsamic vinegar dressing.
Under the gun, I took his suggestion and went with the shrimp linguine - linguine noodles tossed with grilled shrimp in a white wine sauce with olive oil and crushed red peppers. I, too, got a side salad with the red wine vinaigrette dressing.
We made our way to a room in the back part of Via Classico. As we passed a large window that looked into the cooking school, we saw a group of women going through a class. One of the young people standing near the window when we were looking in said it was "Soup night". "They're learning how to make different soups," a young guy told us. "Hopefully, we'll get to sample some of what they're making."
The larger room in the back was an area that they used for cooking demonstrations. There was a large kitchen area full of Viking appliances. (When the Viking Cooking School closed up, they left all the Viking appliances.) Over a stove/grill area were two or three cameras that were pointed down to show the cooking process to people who were there for the demonstrations. Flat screen televisions were placed throughout the room to show the demonstrations. That night, however, they had sports on the televisions.
Our salads came out and it was a nice presentation of multi-colors of green, red, purple and orange. The greens were cold, fresh and crispy. The housemade red wine vinaigrette dressing had a nice tangy taste to it. It was a very good start to the meal.
We weren't finished with our salads and our entrees were brought to the table. The lasagna was piled high with the meat sauce that smelled great. It was all I could do from taking my fork and sneaking a bite when he wasn't looking. And even without the meat sauce, the lasagna underneath was a massive conglomeration of noodles and cheese. My buddy said that the lasagna was "very good", but he knew he wouldn't be able to eat the whole thing.
The shrimp linguine featured nearly a dozen plump sauteed shrimp tossed with linguine pasta, white wine, olive oil and fresh parsley. The pasta was cooked perfectly and very tasty. The lightness of the wine/olive oil went very well with the shrimp. I've had similar shrimp linguine dishes for double the price and served with less shrimp. Plus, it probably didn't taste as good as this did. For $8.95, it was a superb value.
My buddy, predictably, couldn't finish his meal and he asked for a to-go box. "This will be a good snack later tonight," he said. He had finished - maybe - a bit more than half the lasagna. I made a mental note to come back for the lasagna at some point.
After we finished up at Via Classico, we walked back across the parking lot to Abt. I ran into another buddy at Abt who is a somewhat pretentious food snob at times. He turns up his nose at a lot of restaurants that I think are pretty damned good in the Chicago area. He saw that I had a Via Classico menu in my hands and he took it from me and playfully threw it into the garbage can. I told him, "I just had the shrimp linguine and it was very good."
He snobbishly said back, "Everything they serve is frozen, then thawed out."
I said, "I don't think they froze the linguine and the shrimp may have been frozen at one time, but they were very fresh in taste." He sort of waved me away when I said that. I then told him, "All I know is that it tasted pretty good and it was a helluva lot of food for $8.95."
I will have to say that I was pretty darned impressed with Via Classico. Although it's not fine dining, the portions vs. the price were very big. Two people could easily nosh on the lasagna, and what I had was a great value. Via Classico is one of those places that could get very popular with families who are on the go and need a good meal quick - either served in-house or to-go.
(Update - Via Classico sadly went out of business when the cooking school closed toward the end of 2013. I've not found if they've relocated to a new spot.)