Nico Osteria’s coastal Italian fare brightens up Chicago.
When Paul Kahan calls one of his restaurants “authentic,” he isn’t exaggerating. Case in point: Before opening seafood-focused Italian spot Nico Osteria (along with partners Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Kimberly Galban of One Off Hospitality, the team behind Avec, Big Star, Blackbird and The Violet Hour), Kahan flew to Puglia with chef Erling Wu-Bower. “Southern Italy is a different world,” Kahan says. “The trip was about exploring the culture, the style of eating, the simplicity.”
After spending weeks tasting olive oil-drenched pastas, pizzas and fish pulled straight from the sea, Kahan felt ready to return to the States and whip up a menu with Wu-Bower. But he didn’t want to replicate exactly what he’d experienced on the Italian coast. “If we were to try to cook the food we had in Puglia in Chicago, the simplicity wouldn’t translate,” he says. “But an appreciation for that simplicity — and for the freshness of the food — is what we focus on at Nico.”
The resulting menu reflects that appreciation, and in classic Italian tradition, it’s cleanly split into seven sections to let the seasonal ingredients and fresh flavors shine: crudo (raw fish), fettunta (bruschetta with various toppings), antipasti, pasta, piatti (entrees), pesce del mercato (fish entrees) and contorni (sides). “Italian food is about less, not more,” Kahan says. “[We’re] staying true to that idea.”
Here’s what else to expect at Nico Osteria:
Vibe: Luxe yet rustic, just like the food. The 108-seat restaurant — on the ground floor of the Thompson Chicago — surrounds a giant, open kitchen, where you can watch the staff prepare elegant crudos and handmade pastas. Clean, simple décor elements abound, including a vintage tiled floor and steel tables. Before or after dinner, sidle up for an aperitif or “full-strength” cocktail at the adjacent Salone Nico, a 60-person lounge with velvet sofas, a living plant wall and a three-story-high atrium.
Go fish: Kahan and his cohorts spare no expense when it comes to finding the best seafood in the world — the fresh fish at Nico is sourced everywhere from California to Tokyo. “When fish are swimming in the ocean, they’re stronger, their flesh is more firm, they develop deeper flavors, they’re oiler,” Kahan says. “Every night, there are five or six fish on the menu that you won’t find anywhere else. It rotates based on what comes in the back door.” Past selections have included salt-crusted wild branzino with chanterelle mushrooms ($42/pound) and roasted wild turbot with onion agrodolce ($35/pound).
Must-try dish: Kahan’s favorite creation of Wu-Bower’s? The Neapolitan ragu, which tops braised pork belly, swordfish meatballs and crispy rice cakes with rich tomato sauce ($18 per person). “People have just been going crazy over it,” he says. “For this type of weather, it’s very heartwarming.”
Drink up: “Bret Heiar, our sommelier, is a complete and utter Italian wine nut, and his list is incredible,” Kahan says. Heiar focuses on small producers and older vintages from Italy, Greece and France, such the Frappato Tami Sicily ($44/bottle) and the Cortese Massone Gavi Piemonte ($48/bottle).
1015 N. Rush, (312) 994-7100; Nicoosteria.com