My wife and I went into Chicago for her birthday a few weeks ago and I knew I wanted to take her somewhere nice for her birthday dinner. I got hold of Judith Dunbar Hines who has taken us on a couple of culinary and cultural tours of Chicago neighborhoods (click here and here to read about those wonderful tours) before we went in. Judith is deeply connected in the restaurant community in Chicago and I asked her what she would recommend for a place to take my wife. I told her, "Italian is a safe bet with my wife. She loves good Italian food." Judith immediately told me about Piccolo Sogno and gave it a glowing recommendation as her "go-to" for modern Italian cuisine. I made reservations there for a Saturday night.
Piccolo Sogno executive chef and co-owner Tony Priolo grew up on the northwest side of Chicago near the corners of Harlem Ave. and Waveland Ave. in a typical Chicago-style brownstone home. His grandparents - both of whom came from Sicily - lived in the basement of the house and after Tony grandfather passed away, his grandmother cooked meals for the family to pass the time. Priolo's parents both worked and his grandmother would look after Tony after school. When Tony was 8 years old he began to help his grandmother in the kitchen. He and his grandmother would take numerous buses from the northwest side to the Little Italy neighborhood that centered around 26th St. and Wentworth Ave., south and west of downtown Chicago. It was the only place at the time where Tony's grandmother could get imported Italian items to make her authentic Italian foods.
Tony's love of working of working in his grandmother's kitchen sent him on a life of culinary education. His first job at the age of 16 was as a prep cook at an Italian restaurant near his home. Tony went on to the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, which later became Le Cordon Bleu/Chicago culinary school. (Sadly, Le Cordon Bleu announced they would shut down all of their U.S. locations after the last class graduates.) Tony graduated at the top of his class in 1989 and went out into the world of Italian restaurants in Chicago.
Pictured right - Tony Priolo
In 1997, Tony opened Coco Pazzo Cafe, a smaller and more casual counterpart to the more upscale Italian restaurant, Coco Pazzo. As the executive chef at Coco Pazzo Cafe, Tony's rustic Tuscan-style menu caught the eye of critics and diners in the Chicago area. After a year there, he ended up as the executive chef at Coco Pazzo, eventually becoming a partner in both restaurants.
It was at Coco Pazzo where Tony met Ciro Longobardo. Longobardo, a native of Naples, Italy, had extensive restaurant experience across Europe focusing on the selection of wine and spirits. He eventually made his way to the United States and was hired by Coco Pazzo Cafe and quickly moved up the ladder to become the general manager. He ran Coco Pazzo Cafe for five years before he was hired on as the Italian wine specialist for a national wine distributor.
After moving on to another national wine distributor, Longobardo was contacted by Priolo who reminded Ciro of his little dream of opening his own place at some point in time. That point in time was at hand in 2008 when Priolo left Coco Pazzo and enlisted Longobardo as his partner in the new venture Piccolo Sogno, which is Italian for "little dream."
(Pictured left - Tony Priolo and Ciro Longobardo.)
Now, most people would think that opening a restaurant in the midst of a staggering recession isn't the best business plan. But this didn't deter Priolo and Longobardo who found the perfect spot for their venture - a space that housed the former Thyme/Timo restaurant in the River West area west of downtown Chicago. It had a large kitchen, a nice bar area, ample seating for dining - including a beautiful outdoor patio area for warm weather dining - and a large wine cellar that Longobardo stocked full of Italian wines. Piccolo Sogno opened for business in July of 2008.
The success of Piccolo Sogno allowed the partners to open a second location - Piccolo Sogno Due - in the River North neighborhood in the summer of 2012. They had tentatively planned on opening an espresso/bakery cafe - Piccoletto - next to Piccolo Sogno Due last year, but they put those plans on hold while they continue to focus on their restaurants. Currently between the two restaurants, Priolo and Longbardo employ around 200 people.
Piccolo Sogno is located on Halsted, just south of where that street meets up with Milwaukee and Grand. (see map) There is valet parking at Piccolo Sogno, so that was a plus on a cold December evening. I went to make reservations on line via Open Table, but the earliest they could get us in would have been 9:30 p.m. Having a birthday just before Christmas - and on a Saturday night - has always been somewhat of a problem for finding nice places to take my wife on her birthday. I ended up calling the restaurant directly and I thought it might help if I dropped Judith's name and explaining the situation of my wife's birthday. The person I talked on the phone was more than accommodating and they were able to get us in at 8 p.m.
After a short wait in the bar area, we were seated toward the back of the dining room near the kitchen. The dining room looks like something directly out of an old Italy restaurant - arched ceilings with accent lights shooting up from the soffit gave the room a nice indirect light glow. The only problem was that the room was extremely loud. We had a table behind us where the ladies were literally screaming to be heard across their table.
The kitchen area is open to the dining room and was a beehive of activity. I read somewhere that Tony Priolo called his kitchen "organized chaos." The chefs didn't seem to mind people standing to look in to see them work, as long as you didn't get in the way of the servers going in and out of the kitchen area.
They had a prep table near the entrance of the kitchen that featured oven-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, red and yellow bell pepper strips, zucchini and other prepared vegetables they were using that evening for salads or antipasti plates. Tony Priolo only uses fresh ingredients that are available to him locally, so the menu will change seasonally. He imports his fish from the Mediterranean Sea - including sea bass, which is the most popular dish at the restaurant - he imports authentic "00" flour from Italy, and he gets his San Marzano tomatoes and mozzarella cheese directly from Naples.
We were given menus for the evening and I was given a large wine list to look over. Actually, it was more of a wine book as it featured hundreds of Italian wines - wines that I had little to no idea what to choose. My colleague Ian is well-versed in Italian wines and I thought about texting him to see if he had any suggestions. But then I decided to just wing it and possibly ask for suggestions.
The menu at Piccolo Sogno is very rustic - cornish hen, braised rabbit, roasted duck, they were all on the menu. I was taken aback at first by the menu, but soon realized that this was what made Piccolo Sogno so special. They did have pasta dishes, but they were well past the "spaghetti and meatballs"-style. Mascarpone and thyme filled tortellini, pasta noodles with wild mushrooms, asparagus, and black truffles, and green and white ribbon pasta topped with a veal ragu were some of the items available that particular evening.
We decided that we were going to go with seafood-style dishes that evening. They had a couple of interesting specials that night, but I had a hard time understanding our server Miguel just because it was so loud in there. Once we figured out what the specials were, I ended up ordering a bottle of the Pinot Grigio Collio DOC from the Livio Felluga winery that is located in the far northeastern area of Italy, near the Slovenia border.
Starting out with salads, I went with the caprese salad that featured oven-dried tomatoes and fresh imported buffalo mozzarella. Fresh leaf basil with drizzled olive oil finished the salad. The mozzarella with the dried tomatoes were excellent, and the fresh basil gave it a nice, summer-style taste. I love fresh basil.
The salads were served with house-made bread and they had a small bottle of balsamic vinegar and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil on the table. It turns out that Piccolo Sogno has both their vinegar bottled for them in Modena, Italy, and their olive oil is bottled in Sicily and sent to Chicago. We appreciate a good 15-year-old balsamic vinegar and the stuff they had on the table at Piccolo was some of the best we've ever had. I used the balsamic vinegar on my caprese salad and it just heightened the already forward taste of everything on the salad plate. (I've since found out that the balsamic vinegar used at Piccolo Sogno is available at Sunset Foods throughout the greater Chicagoland area.)
Our main entrees came out and I got one of the specials that evening - it was a seafood risotto dish that had mussels, shrimp, squid and calamari mixed in. And there was a lot of the seafood in the dish, especially squid and calamari. The risotto was wonderful - fluffy and flavorful in a seafood broth. It was an extremely rich dinner - I was full by the time I threw in the towel with a pile of risotto still in the bottom of bowl.
Cindy ordered the other special that evening - a grilled salmon on a medley of chopped veggies. The salmon was light and flaky, grilled perfectly and - according to Cindy - not even a hint of "fishiness" in taste. It was a large slab of salmon and she, too, was having trouble finishing the dish. The portions were generous at Piccolo Sogno.
Quite honestly, we were pretty full from our wonderful dinners, but Miguel came back to tempt us with desserts. One of the desserts that he described was a hazelnut double chocolate cake with a scoop of hazelnut gelato. That's what Cindy ordered, and when they brought it out to her they made a big production of it for her birthday. I guess I did tell the person on the phone when I made the reservation that it was her birthday. "Happy Birthday" was drizzled onto the plate with chocolate sauce and a small lit candle was in the middle of the hazelnut double chocolate cake.
We could have easily shared Cindy's dessert, but I'm not that big on chocolate. I ended up getting the egg-less custard dessert that came with an assortment of fresh berries and finished with a drizzle of caramel sauce. The berries tasted great - especially the blueberries. Even though I was completely full from the meal, I put a serious dent in the custard and berries.
Everything about our visit and meal at Piccolo Sogno was excellent. The only problem we had was that it was excruciatingly loud in the place at times. We had trouble conversing across the table when the volume levels around the dining room got to be real loud. But that was more than offset by the wonderful food, the exemplary service and the subtle and laid back decor in the place. Afterward, I had to contact Judith to thank her for the suggestion. Piccolo Sogno is a great restaurant for an alternative to your rank-and-file Italian restaurants. Chef/owner Tony Priolo really thinks outside the box when it comes to the Italian food he serves at Piccolo Sogno. It was one of the more interesting experiences I've had at any restaurant I've visited over the years.