Taking the Simple And Complicating It (Formento’s, Chicago)

My server at Formento’s began the night with reciting rapid-fire recommendations for dishes I should order off the menu. Had I listened, it would have resulted in enough food for an Italian-American army. When I asked him for guidance on how I should order off a menu divided into snacks, antipasti, soups and salads, macaroni, fish, meat and contorni, I received two incoherent spiels that devolved into a who’s-on-first back and forth that would have been amusing if Formento’s was going for cinematic comedic value:

Me: Is this to share or for one person?

Server: This is for one person or maybe two people. For two people, you want to order 1-2 appetizers, maybe you want to share a pasta, wait, you can share anything on the menu. I suggest the calamari, it is excellent (kisses his hand).

Me: So all of these plates are meant for sharing then?

Server: No, they’re individual, but I would share the crab dip, and maybe this calamari, but if you want the Caesar salad, which is excellent, that’s okay, it’s not too big, and if you want the Sunday Gravy, that’s okay too.

Me: So the pastas are entree-sized, for one person?

Server: No, if you don’t have an antipasti, then have the pasta and an entree, wait, maybe have a salad too. Yeah, that would be okay.

And on and on. We settled on a starter (eggplant parmagiana) and two pastas that we ended up sharing (the orecchiette and the Sunday gravy) with the caveat that we might order an entree depending on whether these dishes ending up being too big or too small.

Ordering wine proved no less complicated. The wine list is about four inches thick and weighs about ten pounds. The development of this varied, interesting, well-written list is an accomplishment in a city where restaurants seem to have pared down wine service to a minimum. But, I was left alone to navigate this list while the server disappeared and the sommelier breezed by my table three times, even made eye contact with me, but never actually stopped to assist me in making a selection. (Bewilderingly, we were the only table seated in our section at the time.) By the time the server came back, he began anxiously pressuring us for our food order (after spending ten minutes deciding on a wine, I can understand why he started to feel like the restaurant needed to turn our table as quickly as possible). So, I gambled and ordered a less common varietal from lesser known region; I say gamble because it was a bottle that I had never had, a vintage I was skeptical about, and it cost about $90–an expensive mistake if I didn’t love it.

As a side note, indifferent wine service in a restaurant that aspires to provide it can rapidly send a meal in the wrong direction. Terrible wine service at Blue Hill at Stone Barns–in which the sommelier disappeared to schmooze high roller tables and I ate 50% of my tasting menu without any wine–forever colored my experience even though the food was stellar. I can’t tell you how many sommeliers point me immediately to a California Chardonnay regardless of how inappropriate it is with the food, as if we are all Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Getting back to Formento’s, it’s a disservice to wine–which can be very intimidating to begin with– to curate a list the size of a Russian novel, and then not have the proper support to every table that wants to order wine. I hear many wine professionals complain that too many customers order certain rote wines by the glass (California Chardonnays or Cabernet Sauvignons), and do not delve deeper into the more interesting, nuanced bottle lists they worked hard to put together. But if the wine service professionals leave customers to navigate a huge list, then the customers will likely default to ordering cocktails or less interesting wines-by-the-glass (which are accordingly marked up).

My experience with the less-than-welcoming service, unfortunately, didn’t improve with the food. The eggplant parmagiana was bland but was the least offensive dish of the night. The Sunday gravy came with overcooked canestri that was in a pretty-good pork neck “gravy” but served with spongy meatballs and mealy sausages. It seemed like the romance of the idea of Sunday Gravy got in the way of the reality. The orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage was a total misfire–the ears of pasta were gummy and congealed to each other, it was oversauced with a salty, overly acidic liquid that didn’t marry the flavor of the fennel sausage with the bitterness of the rabe. A couple of bites and I was done.

I hesitated to post this because Formento’s opened recently and has had its share of opening hiccups, including a halt in Friday-night service due to a fire suppression system going off. But, on the other hand, since its opening and friends-and-family meals, the accolades have steadily rolled in (especially from people who attended the latter). I wish Formento’s the best, but I think the relatively simple, ubiquitous concept of Italian-American is proving too difficult to grasp. People eat at Italian-American restaurants, even mediocre ones, because they are simple, uncomplicated, warm, and welcoming. At least Carbone’s in New York–which is wildly expensive–understands the underlying nostalgic, comforting aspect of this genre of restaurants. Formento’s, which seems to shoot for the stars but misses the underlying premise, hopefully can settle down and make the necessary improvements to keep this ambitious operation going.

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