SCALI'S ITALIAN FARE STELLAR, OFF MENU OR ON
By Jon Christensen Dispatch Restaurant Reviewer
Thursday, July 19, 2001
While Downtown and the Northwest Side get the restaurant glamour, Scali Ristorante quietly has been improving its already worthy operation on the Far East Side -- an area dismissed by many as a culinary wasteland.
No longer a secret, this family operation -- Mama still makes breads and soups and works the dining room with a mixture of English and Calabrian dialect -- is lively with appreciators of central and northern Italian food and wine.
Cooking aromas from the open kitchen in back of the large main dining room can be unbearably tempting. Note that lunches are now restricted to Thursdays and Fridays.
The real action is off-menu, where chef Frank Scali is unhampered by the commercial necessity of providing certain Italian-American dishes. Hence the roasted eggplant ($6.95): very thin slices of eggplant char-grilled with a bit of oil and served with sliced garlic and roasted tomatoes.
And the prosciutto-wrapped asiago ($7.25) also picks up wonderful flavors from char-grilling. Filling and tempting.
You always can order a generous mound of properly charred and peeled sweet red peppers as a salad from the menu ($4), simply dressed with olive oil, garlic and a few pieces of fresh basil. The Italian, or house, salad and its vinaigrette ($3.25) is a bit more conventional; but there's no iceberg, the olives are real, the red cabbage is freshly sweet, and the croutons are house-made.
"Mamma Scali's southern Italian version of wedding soup,'' as the menu calls it, costs $2.95 a bowl. Tiny die of carrots, celery and onion with small squares of chicken meat float in a clear, pleasing broth that contains toothsome, cheese-filled tortellini seasoned with nutmeg.
The Caesar salad ($3.95) doesn't stint on the anchovies. Whole filets sit atop the romaine lettuce, and they're also mixed into the olive-oil dressing.
Off-menu main dishes can be great values: seven decent-size lamb chops for $18.95, char-grilled just the right amount and surrounding a large mound of spinach cooked gently with garlic and tomato.
Then there's the outstanding wild mushroom risotto ($14.95) made with reduced, homemade chicken stock and Parmesan -- no cream to gunk things up. Thus, you can taste the rice and the assorted mushrooms (portobello, porcini and shiitake).
The same mushroom assortment also does a fine job with the menu's veal and mushroom entree ($15.50): Thin veal scallops are finished in a light Marsala wine sauce along with the mushrooms. The combination is impressive, and the side of simply sauced penne rigate (no cheese or cream) provides apt contrast.
The strange (and welcome) thing about the rosemary chicken (pollo rosmarini, $11.95) is that you can actually taste the rosemary that's sauteed along with garlic, oil and lemon juice. The chicken piccata ($6.95 at lunch) is a pounded cutlet of chicken breast sauteed with a buttery garlic sauce balanced and well-flavored with fresh lemon and capers.
Papa Scali makes the ravioli used in the ravioli Florentine ($8.75). The large squares are filled with spinach mixed not with ricotta but a much heartier and richer blend of mozzarella and Romano cheeses.
Papa Scali and Francesco,
Anioa, Italy 1964
Scali-made desserts change frequently but often include a cassata ($4.50), a sponge cake layered with custard and strawberries. Scali's version is surprisingly light and not too sweet.
The moderately marked-up wine list focuses on Chiantis but offers other worthies, many of which aren't yet on the list. Ask, and you may receive something like the high-value 1998 Carmignano from Ambra ($24). The Chianti-style mix of grapes, along with cabernet sauvignon, yields a refreshingly tart and dry red that, while still developing, has grapey berry qualities that are great with food.
Last, the Italian espresso ($2.50) is authentic and creamy.