Staying in the near Northwest suburbs of Chicago, I've been looking more to the east of O'Hare International Airport to find neighborhoods with food choices. While heading to the Edison Park neighborhood on the extreme Northwest side of Chicago to go to a specific restaurant for dinner, I found a little Italian place just down the street - Zia's Trattoria. Instead of getting steak at a North Country-style supper club like I planned, I went down the street to get Italian food instead.
Zia's Trattoria partner/chef Joe Calabrese knows his way around a kitchen. Trained at the famous Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, Calabrese worked under Gabino Sotelino at Ambria in Chicago, as well as at the renown Spiaggia Italian restaurant. When he decided to open his own restaurant, Calabrese spent time with family in the Tuscany and Liguria researching recipes with many of his aunts. When he opened the restaurant in 1997, he paid homage to his aunts who helped him with his recipes by naming the restaurant Zia's Trattoria which means "Aunt's Table" in Italian.
In addition to Zia's Trattoria, Calabrese is a partner in Café Touché - a combination French and Creole restaurant just a block down the street from Zia's Trattoria - and Zia's Lago Vista - an offshoot of Zia's Trattoria in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood. His wife, Mary Kay, is also a partner in all three restaurants, as is Tom Penkala, the financial officer for the company since it was formed in 1997.
As I said earlier, I was actually on my way to the Northwoods-themed supper club - Mecca - when I saw Zia's Trattoria at the corner of N. Northwest Highway and N. Oliphant Ave. in Edison Park. (see map) Zia's Trattoria has complementary valet parking, but I was able to find a parking spot just down the street on N. Northwest Highway.
Entering Zia's Trattoria, I found a bar area that was packed. It appeared that the bar was a favorite of many people in the neighborhood. I knew I was going to have to get a table in the dining room. And even though it was busy, I was able to be seated right away.
A young guy at the host stand took me to a white paper over white linen-topped table in the dining room and dropped off a menu. Not long after, a pleasant lady by the name of Christen came over to let me know she'd be taking care of me for the evening. I ordered up a glass of the Revolution Brewing Co.'s Anti-Hero IPA to enjoy while I looked through the menu.
The dining area had sort of a rustic Italian look to it. Soft earth tone colors with antique-style light fixtures adorned the walls. A row of windows were on the north side of the dining room. Coupled with a hard wood floor, it had the makings of being a very loud place. But the ceiling had some wood designs that damped the loud acoustics of the room making the noise level in the L-shaped dining room tolerable. A semi-private room for dining or small receptions is located behind a curtain off to the side of the dining area.
It turns out that Zia's Trattoria was a favorite of Barack Obama - long before he became President of the United States. In 2001, Obama, then a state senator in Illinois, appeared on WTTW's popular "Check Please" program that features everyday people giving reviews on restaurants in and around the greater Chicagoland area. You can click here to see the segment from 14 years ago featuring Obama's recollection of his family's visit to Zia's Trattoria.
The menu was very interesting, to say the least. Appetizers included calimari, cozze made with Prince Edward Island mussels, bruschetta, and speidino consisting of a skewer of beef tenderloin, portobello mushrooms, red peppers and tomatoes. Zia's Trattoria also featured a number of salads including a carpaccio salad, a Caesar's salad, and a cavolifiore (cauliflower) salad that featured pickled and roasted cauliflower, arugula, pistachios, ricotta cheese with a honey vinaigrette.
If you couldn't find something to eat on the menu at Zia's Trattoria, then you may as well forget about eating at any other Italian restaurant. Pasta dishes included a classic lasagna entree, linguine pescatory with shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops and calimari in a spicy tomato sauce, and a penne Abruzesse with spicy sausage and mushrooms in a tomato ragu. For meat-based entrees, Zia's Trattoria featured a pancetta-wrapped pork loin with a mushroom-marsala sauce, as well as a braised lamb shank, and a spicy chicken breast dish with Kalamata olives and capers in a spicy tomato/white wine/garlic sauce.
There were a few specials off the menu that evening, but the first thing that jumped out at me was the veal saltimbocca - veal cutlets cooked with prosciutto and grilled lemon slices in a tomato/white wine/cream sauce. When Christen came back to take my order I first asked about the freshness of the tomatoes in the capri salad. Assuring me that they were very fresh, even for the time of year, I ordered the veal saltimbocca with the capri salad. I asked her to leave the wine list because I was probably going to order some wine with my meal.
The capri salad featured sliced tomatoes topped with fresh mozzarella cheese, red onion slices, roasted red peppers and prosciutto, drizzled with a house vinaigrette and finished with some parmigiana cheese. Christen asked if she could add some freshly ground black pepper and I told her to load it up. She was right - the tomatoes were very fresh. The taste combination of the tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto with the red onion and roasted peppers was off the charts. It was a great start to the meal.
Another server brought my veal saltimbocca to me as Christen was getting me a glass of the Ferrari-Carano chardonnay I ordered from her when she picked up my capri salad plate. The three veal cutlets were swimming in the tomato/cream/white wine sauce. A couple grilled lemon slices topped the prosciutto on top of the veal. A side of escarole - endive leaves cooked with garlic - came with the veal saltimbocca.
From the first bite, I could tell this was a fabulous meal. The capri salad was great, but the veal saltimbocca was off the charts. The taste sensations of the veal and prosciutto together with the sauce were outstanding. I got a hint of lemon and sage in the bites, as well. The veal was tender, easily cut by a fork and there was plenty of it. I sopped up much of the sauce with some of the fresh bread that was provided earlier in the meal. The escarole was all right - I'm not much into cooked endive - but that was fine. The veal was all I needed. Christina came by to check on me about halfway through the meal. I told her the veal saltimbocca was excellent. "Isn't it," she asked back. "It's one of my favorites."
Some of the criticisms of Road Tips is that I over-praise some restaurant and the food that they feature. But I know what I like and the meal I had at Zia's Trattoria was phenomenal. Sometimes dining alone is a pain in the ass, but the staff made me feel welcome and comfortable. Christina's service was straight up professional, yet personable. The atmosphere was relaxed and quaint. For me, Zia's Trattoria was truly a memorable meal and a place that I'd heartily recommend to anyone staying near O'Hare. I'll eventually make it to Mecca some day, but it will tough passing by Zia's Trattoria.