By Kate Bernot
2:31 PM CST, March 8, 2012
52 W. Illinois St. 312-222-1888
Rating: !! 1/2 (out of 4) Take it or leave it
To really enjoy reality TV, you have to suspend judgment. If you don’t think too hard, it can be a deliciously fun distraction.
All the glitz and glamour of an over-the-top reality TV show is embodied in RPM Italian, a new River North restaurant from Chicago's own reality TV couple, Bill and Giuliana Rancic. (He is the first winner of “The Apprentice,” she's a fixture on E! News and “Fashion Police,” and they both star in their own show on the Style Channel.) For their first foray into the dining scene, they paired up with a few folks who know the drill: R.J., Jerrod and Molly Melman, who also run Hub 51 and Paris Club for hometown heavyweight Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
Some dishes are inspired by the family recipes of Naples-born Giuliana, while the rest are courtesy of chef/partner Doug Psaltis, who also helped craft Paris Club's French fare. And much like Paris Club, RPM has a massive menu full of approachable dishes, a DJ booth in the bar area and tables filled with good-looking night owls sizing each other up. But does RPM deliver more style than substance? I stopped in soon after opening to find out.
Don’t be lazy when ordering.
The food menu is huge, and it's easy to be distracted by the designer heels under the next table or the Melman brothers holding court in the dining room. But that doesn’t mean you should go the easy route and order the first dishes on the menu that sound familiar, like spaghetti or polenta. The polenta with a poached egg, parmesan cheese and black truffles ($14) tastes just as indulgent as it sounds, but without a crunchy or chewy element the whole thing feels mushy. The small pasta plates are priced so that you can order a few to share, but the ones I tried mostly fell flat. Basic spaghetti ($16) dyed jet-black with squid ink is spiced up with red chilies and king crab, but the flavors vied for my attention rather than working together. I hoped for meaty comfort in the lamb sugo, a tomato-based sauce served on top of handkerchief-shaped chickpea pasta (think ravioli without the pocket), but it just tasted bland.
Instead, take a risk.
The dishes that you’re less familiar with might just be your best bets. Roman-style artichokes ($11) are fried and served warm, with leaves that crunch in your mouth before melting into a rich, flaky bite. Duck agnolotti pasta with brussels sprouts and mission figs ($12) was my favorite of the night, balancing the fruit’s sweetness with the duck’s gaminess to make the whole far better than the sum of the parts.
And definitely order another round of drinks.
Cocktail whiz Paul McGee (you've seem him and his beard at his former post, The Whistler) presides over the booze offerings, so while wine may seem the obvious partner for Italian food, skip a bottle in favor of a creative cocktail. I came to the table holding a grudge against grappa, an Italian brandy that's always reminded me of lighter fluid. But the Pinwheel ($11), made with vodka, grappa, Amaro Montenegro and orange marmalade, set me straight with a refreshing interplay of citrus and fizz. If I was walking the Italian Riviera in June, this is the drink I'd want to have in hand.
Speaking of those drinks …
They don’t end when the dinner plates are cleared. The dessert menu highlights a dozen amaros ($8), a type of bittersweet, herbal Italian liqueur traditionally nursed after a meal. For amaro newbies like me, McGee suggested pours from the “light” section, which are sweet but still potent, while seasoned sippers can try the more intimidating “robust” section.
The bottom line
My dinner was as full of highs and lows as dramatic as elimination night on “The Apprentice,” but if you fix your gaze on your drink and the scene rather than fixating on what's filling your plate, you’ll be pleasantly swept up in the fantasy.
MORE ON RPM
Looks like: Paris Club, only with a more sleek and sparkly interior and shades over all the windows.
Not to be confused with: RM, the champagne salon opening later this spring in the West Loop. That RM stands for a champagne term, recoltants manipulants, while RPM stands for the owners’ last names: Rancic, Psaltis, Melman.
Don't wear: A white blazer, or risk being mistaken for one of the servers.
Good for: An after-work bite or a fun dinner before heading to neighboring club The Underground. Even your “Fashion Police”-obsessed mother wouldn't feel too out of place.
Reservations: Highly recommended for dinner. For an impromptu meal, head for the massive bar area for first-come, first-served seating.
Keep in mind: Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurants are known for like-clockwork service, but my server seemed like he was still getting the hang of things. Maybe that's why he said all the cheeses are made in-house when it says right on the menu they're imported from Italy?
VIP extras: The raised area behind the main bar is a VIP area that can be curtained off for parties needing a bit of privacy. Even if you never sit there yourself, be on the lookout for celeb sightings.
Kate Bernot is a RedEye special contributor. Writers visit restaurants unannounced and RedEye pays for meals.
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