As soon as my tickets were booked for Chicago I started scheming with my Windy City hostess about where we should go. There were certain things I knew I had to see - the Bean, Wrigley Field, Michigan Avenue - but there was one thing I wanted to do even more than visit any of those iconic places . . . eat at RPM Italian.
RPM Italian is owned by Bill and Giuliana Rancic. If you are not familiar, Bill was the winner of season one of "The Apprentice" and Giuliana is the host of E! News and Live from the Red Carpet. At one point they had a reality TV show "Giuliana & Bill" which I watched religiously. On the show they documented the entire process of deciding to open a restaurant, scouting a location, designing the menu and decorating the space. Needless to say, I was invested.
Our reservation at RPM Italian was at 8:00pm on a Friday night. The restaurant is directly across the street from a fire house and all the firefighters were standing in the open doors watching the pretty ladies head into the restaurant. It reminded me of the firehouse on Boylston Street in Boston.
We were seated right away in a comfortable booth in the center of the restaurant. We had a great view of the bar and the whole dining room. The servers bustle through the tables wearing white dinner jackets, a lovely touch.
We were joined for dinner by a friend who had just moved from Boston to Chicago in January. To begin, we all shared a bottle of Agriverde, a Montepuliciano wine. RPM Italian has an enormous wine list (over 100 choices) and thankfully we were introduced to their sommelier to guide us.
While sipping our wine we took a look through the food menu. We decided to share a bunch of things so we could experience more of the menu. We started with the homemade ricotta served with ciabatta toast.
The ricotta was so creamy and had just the right amount of seasoning. This is a giant step up from the bread and olive oil normally served at Italian restaurants.
In the first round we also ordered one of the evening's specials, fried squash blossoms stuffed with mozzarella cheese and served with an arrabiatta sauce. I first tasted a stuffed squash blossom dish at Bricco in Boston's North End and I order it any chance I get. RPM's version was excellent - light and crisp on the outside, hot melted cheese on the inside and a spicy tomato sauce to add kick when you dip.
We also enjoyed the zucchini fritti with herb dip. The zucchini was sliced paper thin, lightly fried and tasted like a very addicting potato chip. The herb dip was somewhere between tartar sauce and ranch dressing.
To add a little greenery to our meal, we ordered the Tuscan kale salad with radish, pecorino cheese and lemon. I eat kale often but the kale is this salad felt much more rough than usual. Perhaps that is because it was in its purest form (not shredded or made into chips).
For our main course my two meat-eating friends shared the pappardelle bolognese with hand-cut pasta and short rib ragu.
After a few bites I asked what they thought and they said,"This is a classic, traditional Italian dish and RPM does it super well. The pasta is al dente and the short rib is really nicely caramelized."
I had the sweet pea agnolloti which is normally served with prosciutto, but the RPM team was happy to make it vegetarian. The fresh peas tasted like summer and the sauce the ravioli was swimming in was sweet without feeling too rich or heavy.
Despite having already indulged in five separate dishes, we had to look at the dessert menu. RPM has many great choices, most involving chocolate, which is my kind of dessert menu!
We couldn't resist the chocolate torta which was a layer of cookie crumbs, a layer of chocolate mousse, a layer of chocolate ganache and candied orange on the top.
The cookie crumbs tasted like a mix of Oreo cookies and the crunchies inside a Carvel ice cream cake. The citrus flavor of the candied orange helps cut through the rich flavor of the triple chocolate.
When the torta first arrived I was sure we wouldn't even eat half of it, the portion just looked so huge. Wrong. We left only 3-4 bite on the plate before tapping out.
Since we were in full gluttony mode, we also got the bombolonis (Italian style donuts). There were five donuts and they came with three dipping sauces - Nutella, mascarpone and a lemon custard.
The donuts were like sugar coated clouds, but were just sturdy enough to handle serving as a vehicle for the decadent dipping sauces. Surprise, surprise, I only ate the Nutella.
After a bottle of wine and three indulgent courses, we were feeling a bit like we should be rolled home.
When I requested a meal at RPM Italian as part of my Chicago visit, I was worried the restaurant might not live up to the celebrity hype. To be honest, this was one of the best meals I've had all year. I was so impressed with the staff, the expansive menu and the delicious plates, course after course.
Though my dream was to not only visit, but to see Giuliana and Bill, it seems that celebrity sighting wasn't in the cards. Hopefully next time!