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Review: Siena Tavern

'Top Chef' fan favorite Fabio Viviani channels Italy's charm in River North

By Lisa Arnett, @redeyeeatdrink

RedEye

February 28, 2013

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Review: Siena Tavern
51 W. Kinzie St. 312-595-1322
Rating: 3 (out of four) Off to a good start

Fabio Viviani was a fan favorite on the fifth season of "Top Chef," but since then, I've seen his charming grin and Italian accent all over the place.

There he was on a commercial for Domino's, touting a line of artisan pizzas. Or promoting oatmeal as a healthy breakfast (in red satin pajamas, of course) in an online video for Quaker Oats. And in between, he's teaching his fans Italian one word at a time on Twitter.

His on-screen antics—from the way he pronounced "burger" as "boorger" and declared, "This is 'Top Chef,' it's not 'Top Scallops,' "—were such reality TV gold that Bravo brought him back for two more shows, "Top Chef All-Stars" and "Life After Top Chef."

Now, thanks to a partnership with Luke Stoioff and David Rekhson of newly christened Dineamic Group (the guys that brought you self-serve beer at Bull & Bear and Public House), this Florence-raised, California-based chef is sharing his family recipes with Chicago.

On a research trip to Italy, the Dineamic crew was particularly taken with Siena, a Tuscan city about 45 miles outside of Florence—and more specifically, a small side-street eatery there called La Taverna. "There's a guy making pizza. There's a guy making martinis, pouring wine, making pasta on an old pasta grinder," Stoioff said. "It was literally a bar and a kitchen."

And so, everything at Siena Tavern from the Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling to the typewriter font on the menu to the layout of multiple bars interspersed with dining nooks can be traced back to this particular place. I pulled up a barstool to see if Fabio and company's food had the potential to charm as much as his one-liners do.

Keep it light
It seems like every other word on the menu is prosciutto, pancetta, truffle or some kind of cheese, but a rich, food coma-inducing meal isn't the only way to go. Raw seafood plates from the crudo bar such as balsamic-drizzled hamachi with jalapeno slices and crispy shallots ($12) are flavor-packed but still light. And even though I usually couldn't care less about salads, combos such as hearts of palm with avocado and marcona almonds ($11) or farro with shrimp, calamari, roasted peppers and green beans ($14) sounded downright tempting.

Or majorly pig out
It's definitely not for a first date, but the mess of an appetizer that is the coccoli ($12) is closely based off a La Taverna dish. Crispy puffs of fried dough arrive on a cutting board with strips of prosciutto, blobs of stracchino (a mild, smooth Italian cheese) and drizzles of truffle honey. You break apart the dough, spread on the cheese, tear off some prosciutto and assemble it into a little bite, covering yourself in honey in the process. In the pasta department, praise for Viviani's gnocchi on "Top Chef" definitely set the bar high for his version served here with a rich truffle cream sauce flecked with fried sage and pancetta ($16). The best gnocchi is feather-light and velvety soft, while the worst is gummy and chalky—and Fabio's unquestionably is the former. Thin-crust pizzas ($14-$17) have more in common with Bar Toma's substantial crust the authentic Neopolitan styles of Nella and Spacca Napoli. The prosciutto-pear pizza reminded me of a traditional argula-topped prosciutto pie, only more indulgent thanks to roasted garlic cream sauce and grilled pears.

Expect a bit of deja vu
Siena Tavern may have been inspired by a quaint little restaurant, but the oversized tufted booths, cleavage-baring bartenders and bar that's three deep by 6:30 p.m. on a Friday are shades of Bull & Bear and Public House, for sure. Whereas beer dominates those hangouts, cocktails ($12) are much more of a focus here, thanks to Revae Schneider of Femme du Coupe (If you've drank at rooftop restaurant Homestead, that's her work, too). The No. 11 was like a memory mashup of vacationing in Mexico and Italy with tequila and grappa mingling in the same glass, while the No. 5 matched bourbon with chai, sparkling apple cider and Averna, an Italian liqueur. The staff is still working through the usual we-just-opened kinks—which means I witnessed a spilled cocktail here, a sloshed crudo plate there and the occasional pasta arriving before antipasti.

Pencil in a return visit
The menu is just too huge to try everything that sounds good in one sitting. Like Balena and RPM Italian, two other Italian restaurants that have opened within the past year or so, Siena serves a massive Florentine-style steak for two dressed with herbs, olive oil and lemon. Convincing another carnivore at the table to go halfsies on this $85 36-ounce porterhouse is easier said than done, though, especially when everyone's in the mood for pasta. My own Italian mother-in-law makes a damn good lasagna, but next time, I'll save room to try Viviani's mama's recipe ($16). Ditto for the bomboloni ($9), holeless Italian doughnuts made with mashed potatoes to give them a gooey consistency. And the house-made gelato. And 12-ounce kobe meatball. See what I mean?

Don't let the reservations situation scare you off
It's true, most of Siena Tavern's prime-time reservations are booked solid into April on opentable.com. But that doesn't mean it's as tough to get into as Chicago's most popular restaurant with "Top Chef" roots, Girl & The Goat. A decent chunk of tables in the dining room are saved for walk-ins and the entire main bar and surrounding tables are first come, first served.

Bottom line: Livelier than a traditional red-sauce joint and fancier than its sports bar siblings—though not as fancy as River North's other celeb-owned modern Italian hangout, RPM—Siena Tavern is on the way to hitting a sweet spot for downtown diners and drinkers.

***

FAST FACTS ON SIENA TAVERN
Hours: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Friday and Sunday; 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday. Lunch at 11 a.m. starts March 4
Smells like: Citrus, basil and sage, thanks to bartenders peeling lemon and orange peel garnishes and a wall of herb planters behind the crudo and pizza bar.
Likes: Flavorful crudo, decadent pastas and fab cocktails
Gripes: Is anyone else sick of empty frames on the wall as a design element?
Trivia: This isn’t Luke Stoioff and David Rekhson’s first tie to “Top Chef.” In 2005, they opened high-end lounge Stone Lotus and enlisted Dale Levitksi (who later appeared on the show’s third season) to cook bites paired with bottle service.

Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. lmarnett@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink