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May 4, 2007

The Gadabout—May 4, 2007

Chicago. The city that re-invented the pizza and created Italian beef. The land of Al Capone and the Chicago outfit of the Mafia. The home of the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. Only here could you find a place like Sabatino’s.

In its own way, this Irving Park Italian restaurant—a visible favorite for generations of Italian families and lovers—somehow exudes a class that only old Chicago could muster. Past the dark, smoky wooden bar and through the electric-candlelit rooms, the burgundy carpets, floral upholstering of the chairs, and brown vinyl booths commingle to form a style reminiscent of a 1970s Holiday Inn. The walls are covered with Mediterranean-inspired oil waterscapes and bird-hunting trophies in various stages of flight, including an eagle in an attacking pose opposite our table. Against one wall stands a wine cellar complete with shower-like glass walls and gold molding. Violinists and piano players serenade diners as waiters announce the plethora of specials complete with original Chi-cah-go accents and hand gestures.

Sticking to the classics and avoiding the pitfalls of foodie pretension is all part of Sabatino’s charm, reflected just as much in its atmosphere as in its menu and prices. We failed to find any purées, arugula, or fennel, for example, among the huge variety of no-nonsense, old-style Italian pasta, meat, seafood, veal, and chicken entrées. Dishes start at about $13 for servings of pasta on plates bigger than your head to just under $50 for a two-person rack of lamb, and everything includes at least a soup and salad. Non-pasta dishes also come with a side of either pasta or potato. Per kilo, the food at Sabatino’s probably undercuts Bartlett by orders of magnitude.

With such an array to choose from, the appetizers seemed like a waste of valuable stomach real estate. Our table of three was presented with not only a still-warm loaf of crumbling Italian bread complete with large carving knife and cutting board, but also a serving of “pizza bread” ($3.50), toasted French bread topped with mozzarella cheese, tiny sausage chunks and other typical pizza ingredients.

After feasting on bread, the prospect of soup and salad before the main course was slightly distressing. The clam chowder was very creamy and complimented the crusty Italian loaf well, but New Englanders could probably rip it apart regardless. Ordering a salad with blue cheese dressing entails an overwhelming mountain of blue cheese crumbles, but, like a loud-mouthed Cubs fan, Sabatino’s is not so big on subtlety, especially when it comes to emphasizing taste.

The three pasta dishes we ordered excelled with their simple, direct flavors and cooking style. The homey pappardelle con funghi di bosco ($14.95), a wide-noodle pasta with mushrooms in a cream sauce, amounted to delicious, filling comfort food, something you could imagine an Italian grandmother making for a family meal. Sabatino’s cheese manicotti ($13.50), accompanied by the restaurant’s trademark marinara sauce made with surprisingly delicate hints of basil and garlic, could be served at that family meal, too. In a solitary complaint, the seafood in the tordelli al pesce ($13.95), or pasta stuffed with cheese, crab, and shrimp, was overwhelmed by the sauce and ended up tasting more like its more boring cousin, cheese ravioli.

Having plowed our way through two types of bread, salad, soup, and pasta, we wavered with doubt only momentarily before ordering a classic tiramisu ($4.50) from the impressively large dessert menu. The tiramisu was appropriately sweet and creamy, but the ladyfinger concoction seemed a bit dry and stingy on the espresso and rum—a surprising issue given Sabatino’s tendency in the opposite direction.

Although the restaurant wasn’t full for our 6 p.m. meal and we were at least forty years younger than everyone else in the room, we found the service—from the tuxedoed, mustachioed maître d’ to our Bruce Willis–lookalike server—helpful and attentive throughout our meal. Our water glasses were refilled faster than we could drink, and our table was swiftly cleared of breadcrumbs (a tragic casualty of our bread-slicing abilities) with an intriguing scraping device.

Sabatino’s does three things very well. First, it presents a memorable atmosphere that could never be fully recreated outside of our great city. Second, the restaurant is both affordable and “classy,” making it ideal for anything from an entry-level date to a large, loud gathering. Third, it does old-style Italian the way it should be: unpretentious, simple, and good. For starving college students desperate to escape dining-hall food, the tasty pasta selections are some of the best bargains on the menu. Although Sabatino’s Irving Park location is a hike for Hyde Parkers, it’s well worth the Blue Line or Metra commute to see and taste an establishment unique to Chicago. Should Sabatino’s ever close or remodel, then it will be official: The Lincoln Park yuppies will have won the war.