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May 09, 2007


Dominic Armato
UPDATE : Baccalà has closed

The restaurant, not the foodstuff... well, a little of both, but for today, mostly the restaurant.

John Bubala, of Thyme/Timo fame, recently brought this new operation to Bucktown, just around the corner from home. It's been a hotly anticipated opening in this household, so we gave them a couple of weeks to get their feet under them and then snuck in this past weekend to give it a try.

My previous experience with Bubala had been a little frustrating. Through three or four visits to Thyme/Timo, once in the former and the rest in the latter incarnation, the food was always excellent. But while I'm rarely put off by service issues, we had problems -- significant ones -- every time. I was assured by fellow diners whom I trust that my experience was exceptional, which I'm perfectly willing to believe. Sometimes you just have bad luck. But all the same, when you've been burned three times in a row, it's tough to muster the will to return.

Enter Baccalà: my opportunity to approach Bubala in his new environs with a clean slate. Apparently he's been traveling Italy quite a bit, evidenced not only by Thyme's metamorphosis and his subsequent decision to open a second Italian establishment, but also by the scads of Bubala's photographs that adorn the walls of Baccalà; taken, I understand, by his own hand. It's a comfortable, cozy, inviting little room of wood and brick, and the menu matches. Though there are a couple of pastas to be found, the menu is primarily composed of heartier fare with emphasis on pork. I thought the menu was nicely structured, composed a third of appetizers, a third of entrees, and a third of dishes that can go either way by request. As it turned out, this was almost a matter of necessity. The three dishes we tried were... well... read on.

Dominic Armato
It seemed appropriate to start with the restaurant's namesake dish, so I didn't need our server's recommendation to push me over the edge. We both started with the baccalà with potatoes, scallops, garlic and chives. The dish's structure was, in fact, a brandade, the cod and potatoes blended together into an extremely rich, creamy puree that came across as less of a fish dish and more of a lump of exceptional mashed potatoes. The cod was so thoroughly incorporated, in fact, that I never detected a single chunk. I was a little disappointed by this choice, but the dish maintained body by incorporating some wonderfully tender bay scallops. Garlic potency aside, the flavor profile was fairly subtle, accented only by a few olives and a symbolic tuft of arugula. But the dish was RICH. There was butter and cream in abundance, and knowing Bubala, it wouldn't surprise me if he worked some pork fat in there. A delicious dish, and correctly served in a smaller portion.

Dominic Armato
As an entree selection, well, anybody who bothered to glance at the menu above knows what I chose. My love for pork belly is well-documented, so trying Bubala's take, paired with a risotto, smoked cheese, peas and balsamic syrup, was a foregone conclusion. I was supremely impressed with its technical execution. The pork was perfection with tender yet toothsome meat and fat that dissolved on the palate. The risotto, something so often butchered, walked that perfect textural tightrope, a concoction that was luxurious and creamy on the macro level, despite being composed of grains that maintained their individual bite on the micro level. In a particularly nice touch, the risotto contained small cubes of cheese that were right on the solid/squishy border, maintaining their shape through the cooking process, but melting away in your mouth. And the balsamic, too often used with a heavy hand, worked in concert with the meaty sauce rather than overpowering it. This dish nearly brought me to my knees. Not because it was delicious, though it certainly was.

This dish was so overpoweringly rich, it almost destroyed me.

I am the guy who scoffs when somebody complains that a dish is too rich. I am the guy who, upon first traveling to Italy at age 10, quickly decided that Tortellini alla Panna was my favorite dish and proceeded to eat it for dinner almost every single night for three straight weeks. I am the guy who appreciates the use of all cuts of meat, but pines for the fattiest of the fatty. Hell, just look two posts back to see where I stand on rich dishes. And let me tell you, I barely finished. It was too rich for me. At the hands of John Bubala, I have discovered a limit that I previously thought nonexistent.

Dominic Armato
The incredible richness wasn't limited to the pork belly, however. Pork belly, certainly. Creamy mashed potatoes with salt cod, okay. But even my ladylove's entree, the artichoke ravioli with charred onions, corn and brown butter, took vegetables and somehow made them abusive. Don't misunderstand, again, this was a delicious dish... perfect fresh pasta, lightly charred peas and corn and a restrained amount of brown butter. But the abundant artichoke filling was heavily cheesed and creamed, turning the dish into a lip-smacker. Delicious, yes. Well-executed, yes. But surprisingly heavy, given the menu description.

Dominic Armato
The fact that we felt compelled to follow this meal with dessert is a testament to either our hunger or our insanity, I'm not certain which. My ladylove had a chocolate crème brûlée, and I chose pear crêpes with a pistachio ice cream. Dessert was solid, but unexceptional. It'll scratch the itch if you wish to finish with something sweet. Espresso was surprisingly unavailable, though I was left with the impression that this may have been a temporary situation.

All in all, a delicious meal and despite the shock to my system, I do feel compelled to return. I'm curious to know if we happened to choose heavier dishes, though I suspect this may be par for the course. There's no denying that these are beautifully executed dishes, but I find myself wishing he'd dial them back just a bit. I say this, of course, but you know I'll end up trying the porcini tortellini with lardo on my next visit. Just consider going for the small plate options, when available. You won't be able to eat as much as you think.

1540 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
Wed - Sat6:00 PM - 10:00 PM


Hmmm...sounds bogus.

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