Italian cuisine will always have an upper hand against any other type of food. Why? Because almost every dish is centered around some type of delicious carbohydrate with a nice portion of meat and/or cheese to go along with it. Screw the low carb diets. How can you enjoy some tasty Italian food if you go through that diet hell? If you don’t like Italian food or carbohydrates then my girlfriend Erin (pictured below) does not wish to talk to you or look at your face.
One restaurant that goes beyond the normal Italian fare is Bar Siena in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. Bar Siena is a casual spot with TVs showing sports games alongside a sleek interior featuring a lit up tree in the center of the restaurant and a medium sized patio for the third of each year that Chicago doesn’t have blistering cold, strong winds, and downpours of snow. Don’t be fooled by the more casual ambience though. Bar Siena’s service is fantastic and the food is upscale, with chef Fabio Viviani’s menu at Bar Siena drawing inspiration from his sister restaurant Siena Tavern.
The restaurant offers most of its dishes in a sharable tapas-style manner, along with a few full portion plates. There are a ton of tasty sounding dishes to choose from, so consulting your server will be beneficial for narrowing down your choices. Some dishes that Erin and I skipped over include the Taleggio Focaccia (stracchino cheese, arugula, truffle honey, sea salt), their Burrata (spicy apricot mostarda, candied pistachio, sea salt, grilled polenta bread), and Bar Siena’s Sweet Corn Ravioli (chiodini mushrooms, truffle butter). What we did order though did not disappoint!
We started off with ribs, something you would not expect to find at an Italian restaurant. Our waitress really sold me when she mentioned that Chef Fabio Viviani brought his rib sauce recipe up from New Orleans for this dish. For those that don’t know New Orleans has the best food in America and if you haven’t been you need to book a trip their ASAP! The Balsamic Glazed Pork Ribs were extremely tender and fell right off the bone. They were made with crispy brussels sprout leaves and sea salt covered in an amazing tangy and sweet sauce that all combined to make it an outstanding start to our meal. I would have liked to see a little more brussels sprout leaves on the plate, but that was my only picky complaint. This dish was Erin’s favorite of the night.
Being at an Italian restaurant we could not pass up trying Bar Siena’s pizza. The waitress informed us that we could split a pizza into two different flavors/offerings which I think is always a nice option for a restaurant to offer when it comes to pizza. While many options sounded mouth watering, we opted for half Wild Mushroom & Garlic (white truffle oil, fontina, shaved parmesan) and half Prosciutto Fig (spiced pistachio, taleggio, truffle honey). The Wild Mushroom & Garlic pizza was very good but not anything I hadn’t had before and I only recommend it to those who love mushrooms. Bar Siena’s Prosciutto Fig pizza was, on the other hand, completely different from any other pizza I have had. The sweet honey and figs balanced perfectly with the crunchy pistachio and arugla, savory taleggio cheese, and salty prosciutto. If you want pizza at Bar Siena, make sure at least half of it is this one!
The highlight of the night for me was Bar Siena’s lasagna. But this isn’t your mama’s traditional lasagna. This is Short Rib Lasagna made with taleggio cheese and roasted garlic béchamel sauce made from a white roux and milk. The rich sauce accompanied by the perfectly cooked layers of pasta and juicy short rib was superb. It was extremely heavy though, so sharing this entree is highly recommended.
If you can, save room for dessert. If you can’t, which is more likely, then make sure to grab some of their bomboloni in a to-go box. You can grab a box of 3 for $9 and eat them later when you come out of your food coma. Bomboloni are Italian filled doughnuts which are traditionally eaten as a snack or dessert. Bar Siena serves the sweet sugar coated doughnuts with tubes filled with the filling flavors you choose. They have choices such as mixed berry, maple cream, vanilla bean custard, and peanut butter fudge. Erin and I opted for the salted caramel, s’mores, and Nutella cream varieties. Once you get to squeezing the filling into the doughnuts you will either feel like a little kid again, amused by the smallest of things, or like an immature teenager, laughing at the funny sounds and bubbling it makes as you squeeze the filling into the pastry. I was the later of the two! Overall the bomboloni are not anything I would go running back for, as the dough is very soft and the filling makes the doughnuts a bit too rich and sweet for my liking, and I consider myself a huge sweet tooth. However, for a first time try they are fun and tasty.
If you find yourself looking for a fun happy hour, an upscale bar to watch sports at, or a nice date spot then Bar Siena can certainly fill that void. The combination of a fun environment, terrific service, and delicious Italian food with a twist takes Bar Siena into the win column in my book!
-Michael Averbook, Foodie Extraordinaire