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Out to Lunch: Gioco, 1312 S. Wabash Ave.

Gioco plays the lunch game very well

Phil Vettel

7:48 PM CDT, March 23, 2012

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Who eats: Loop business types and conventioneers.

Why eat: Executive chef Geotano Ascione, who arrived in August, has installed a rustic Italian menu ("strictly on the Italian standards," he points out) that makes good use of the open kitchen's domed, wood-burning oven. The South Loop location is equidistant from the Loop and McCormick Place.

Ambience: Opened in 1999 in a Prohibition-era building that reputedly was a one-time speakeasy, Gioco (which means "game," as in a game you play) exudes rustic and gritty charm. The two-level space includes a sunken dining area within distressed brick walls. Focal points include stacks of wine bottles (alluding to the budget-friendly Italian wine list) and the open kitchen; the sidewalk cafe is a popular sunny-day destination.

Dress code: Business casual rules during the week.

Noise factor: When full, considerable. But lunch service is relatively undiscovered.

Overheard: Chef passionately discussing the menu.

Service: Our waitress seemed hesitant and inexperienced, though she could provide opinions on her favorite dishes.

Cellphone reception/Wi-Fi: Reception strong even in lower level; free Wi-Fi.

Reservations: 312-939-3870, or through opentable.com.

Menu: Compact assortment of seafood and vegetable appetizers, pizzas, pastas, and a few main plates. Dinner menu has more heft.

Reliable options: Thin, blistered-crust pizzas are delicious, particularly the wild mushroom and goat cheese version ($14) anointed with truffle oil. Beef and veal meatballs bathed in tomato sauce and basil ($9) are very good, as is a simple salad of steamed asparagus ($7) with chopped egg and Parmesan cheese. The pasta to try is the paccheri (think extra-large rigatoni) with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella and drizzled olive oil, a bit of Neapolitan heaven ($12).

Expect to pay: $46-$60 for two.

Contacts: giocorestaurant.com, or 312-939-3870.