When I initially went to Osteria Langhe in Logan Square, which is my favourite Italian restaurant, I wondered if the owner would ever open another restaurant. When he said that he and his managing partner were considering opening an Italian restaurant that serves casual Italian, I thought to myself, “No, please don’t join the ranks of stock Italian restaurants.” And when Animale opened at 1904 N. Western Avenue, I went and was rather confused. The ambience and decor are casual. The food screams “fine dining.”
A good friend and I met one early evening shortly after Animale had its opening. Noting that you order at the counter and then have a seat, after which a server brings your food, we opted for a 6-course degustation for sharing. We started with a pappardelle — roasted carrots, green onions, beef cheeks, and buttery flat noodles that were topped with bread crumbs. The first bite was the indicator that led us to believe that the owners are modest. Such flavour and authenticity aren’t present in most casual dining, honestly. The pappardelle was, in a word, outstanding.
One of the exotic dishes we tried was animelle. This was bacon wrapped in sweet breads, topped with a spicy endive salad, and drizzled with mustard honey. This dish fell outside of the usual fare found on Italian menus. Starting with sweet breads, American Italian restaurants don’t entertain such options. Dishes like animelle come with such pop that not only do you forget that it’s Italian but you make ticklers to yourself to plan return visits.
Another exotic dish was sanguinaccio. This dish was remiscent of pollo e funghi that I had enjoyed at Osteria Langhe. Instead of chicken and mushrooms wrapped in a tasty pastry, there was blood sausage encased in a puff pastry. Served on top of lentils in a La Tur citrus cream and a few leafs of endive, it becomes increasingly easy to dismiss spaghetti and meatballs as an Italian delicacy.
When I was younger, there was a commercial that used to come on with a little boy wanting to spend the night at his friend’s house to avoid going home to a meal of liver. At the end of the commercial, the kid was nonplussed because, per him, “Larry’s mother is cooking liver, too.” He probably wouldn’t have been so displeased if his mother or Larry’s mother were cooking fegato. These rabbit livers were accented with thyme and served with mushrooms, shallots, and madeira atop toast. And they had been cooked so that the consistency was slightly spreadable on the toast. Delicious.
Now, Osteria Langhe has a signature ravioli called plin that is addictive. There it’s simply mini raviolis filled with La Tur and parmesan cheese. At Animale, they’re hand-pinched pillows filled with La Tur cheese and served with house pancetta and arugula. It is difficult for me to say which recipe I like most and I know that I shall return to Osteria Langhe and Animale countless times to sample their plin so I can eventually be decisive about which I prefer more.
For the finale, we had panna cotta. There was no way we were going to skip such a delight, and we had the dessert topped with a chocolate sauce and sprinkled with hazelnuts, and raspberries. The portion was perfect, given all the food we had eaten, and it was the same recipe from Osteria Langhe that makes it a difficult dessert to turn away from.
The last time a restaurant owner mentioned opening a casual dining restaurant as a replacement for a fine dining French restaurant, it was a disappointment. Seeing how Osteria Langhe has raised the bar for Italian dining, from my personal experience, it was clear that quality would be top priority at Animale. Service falls in the Absolutely Best category, if I may add. The atmosphere may be laid back and completely devoid of pretense, but be prepared for the next best Italian restaurant in Chicago. With such bloom in flavour, I foresee long lines at Animale. I’ll be in those lines quite a few times.