Gaetano’s one of the area’s best Italian restaurants
The Rigatoni alla Trastaverina pasta entree is among Gaetano’s many flavorful offerings. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times
Updated: August 22, 2012 3:28PM
Never trust an Italian restaurant with an autographed Frank Sinatra photo on the wall.
Exhibit A: Forest Park’s Gaetano’s, a Sinatra-less, glossy picture-free dining room, and one of the best Italian restaurants at which I’ve ever eaten.
I’m sure there’s a fairly good Sinatra photo-clad Italian dining room somewhere. But for most places, especially a red sauce joint built after, say, 1995, the presence of an Ol’ Blue Eyes photo probably only means the owner was crafty at swooping in with a last minute bid on eBay.
And if the place is one of those historic joints with the dusty Chianti bottles filled with Rat Pack debauchery, that Sinatra photo is usually emblematic of the fact that the restaurant stopped providing quality food the minute it started relying on the idea that famous people ate there.
Gaetano’s, on the other hand, indulges in no fame. That is not to say people don’t know about Gaetano’s. But there’s good neighborhood restaurant notoriety, and then there’s Mario Batali notoriety. Gaetano’s has the former. It deserves the latter.
Since 1978, Gaetano’s owner, chef Gaetano Di Benedetto, has prepared dinners for Italian presidents and cooked for the 2002 Italian Winter Olympic team. But these days, cooking for fussy Italian dignitaries and those who revere protein shakes doesn’t move the Q rating.
When the lights go down, everything fades away and Gaetano’s is mostly about great food and great service. Gargantuan portions abound, perfect for crazy foodies who can’t help themselves. And I can’t.
Carpaccio at Italian restaurants is usually a throwaway of dry beef topped with wilting arugula, shaved parm and mediocre olive oil. At Gaetano’s, silky, intensely marbled, rare, shaved Kobe beef is splashed with heady pumpkin oil and fiery Calabrian pepper paste. It’s topped with crunchy toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds and finally drizzled with soy-lime vinaigrette.
The zuppa di pesce alla Siciliana is Gaetano’s alone, plump briny scallops and shrimp wafting a garlic tomato perfume from an underlying fumet.
Seafood is treated well at Gaetano’s. Scallops are well-seared and nicely nested in perfectly al dente lemon-sauced risotto. Sweet and salty crab is stuffed between a brontosaurus-sized griddle-marked pork chop. The idea of pork mixed with crab seems like some kind of cosmic joke, but the joke’s on me as I realize that I may have gained five pounds.
Calories are not coming, though, from the butternut squash gnocchi of which I only eat a bit. It’s not that the dish is bad. But almost everything I’ve eaten here tonight is best in class, and these gnocchi are just a touch short of the whisper-light gnocchi I’ve had elsewhere.
Of course, less gnocchi means more gluttony over dessert, an Italian Napolean of sorts — golden-brown phyllo shards stuffed with indulgent vanilla bean flecked custard and honey-sweet peaches.
The first rule of Italian restaurants is that you shouldn’t take Italians to them. They grew up eating the standards, and as long as their mothers and grandmothers didn’t screw things up too badly, it’s tough for anyone to top nostalgia. And yet, my dining companions, who still make pork neck bone gravy on Sunday afternoon, seem just as satisfied as me. Of course, as I sit back and reflect on how Gaetano’s might be one of the best Italian restaurants in Chicago, a certain familiar crooner invades the house music system, asking me to “come fly” with him.
On second thought, I didn’t hear nuthin’.~.