Hidden in Plain Sight: Italian Village’s Wine Cellar (Chicago)

This year marks my 20th year in Chicago, when I arrived in August, 1995 to begin graduate school. It goes without saying (although I will anyway) that the city has changed a lot since then, but it really has. Although Marche and Vivo were thriving in the mid-90s, Randolph Street as we know it today did not exist. The West Loop was a crime-ridden wasteland of abandoned buildings, many of which were bulldozed or rehabbed into lofts largely in preparation for the 1996 Democratic Convention at the United Center. Wicker Park and Bucktown still retained some of their grunge vibe, and the legendary Busy Bee was still slinging pierogies.

Twenty years later, a lot is gone but some things still exist. One of the first restaurants I went to after moving here was Italian Village. It was only a few blocks from my law school, and was cheap enough for a student’s budget. We cared less about the quality of the food, and more about guzzling cheap chianti by the glass and devouring huge plates of food for about $10 apiece.

It has been easily over a decade since my last visit to Italian Village. At first glance, I was struck by how much it looked the same. The room is still decorated with sculptures of questionable taste and artistry, like the life-size Roman goddess hovering above the diners, and the nude nymph flexing backwards in what I can only assume is ecstasy. There are still blinking lights to mimic stars on the wall. The back of the bar has a four-columned rotunda (this is where the nymph lives) and a trompe d’oeil effect makes it appear twice its size. Far from being sophisticated and classy by 2015 standards, it is strangely awesome in that it is proudly frozen in time. Italian Village seems completely aware that it is out-of-date but doesn’t give a fig, because it knows that everything old becomes new again. And with the opening of Formento’s, which attempts to re-create on a classier level what places like Italian Village have always been, I think they’re right.

What brought me back to Italian Village not as a student on a budget but as a professional with a 401(k) was Italian Village’s 30,000+ bottle wine cellar. Easily one of the largest collections of wine in the city, it seems largely overlooked or even forgotten. There is almost nothing about the wine list or the restaurant that contains the modern indications of culinary legitimacy: there’s no hipster somm, widely-acclaimed chef or the backing of a hip restaurant group. It is old world at its heart and old school in its execution. The list of Barolo and Barbaresco alone, though, should be enough to draw serious oenophiles from far and wide. The bottle prices, while not cheap, are certainly not expensive either given the quality and early vintages of the wine offered. As New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov lamented late last year, Barolo is a cellaring wine, yet so few restaurants are willing to invest in wine that takes twenty years (or more) to mature. Which is why Italian Village, stodgy as it is, is a municipal treasure.

You have to speak a few passwords, though, to find your way to this wine “speakeasy,” if you will. First, you have to know it exists. (Now you know, although the website announces it as well.) And when you arrive, you can’t be deterred by the hordes of tourists and pre-theatergoers who are there for the food, or the loud, after-work crowd sipping Buds from the bottle and munching on free pizza (a happy hour snack). When you sit down, you have to ask for the wine list – the reserve one – not the by-the-glass list that comes with the menu. And once you show that you’re ordering the good stuff, the door figuratively opens. You are visited by the “captain,” who sets down towering Barolo glasses, not the small Libby cups. (Ryan Wichmann is listed as the wine director, but various “captains” do wine service duty.) Your wine is strained and decanted, and carefully poured in small increments into your glass. When we were there, we had a 1999 Ceretto Bricco Rocche “Prapò” Barolo for about $115/bottle. At 26 years old, it could have cellared longer but with decanting, it was hitting its stride with softer tannins, good acidity, minerality, menthol, leather, and most pleasingly, ground hazelnuts at the finish.

Beyond the wine itself, though, what makes this whole experience great — and quintessentially Chicago — is the crush of humanity in this establishment. Restaurants these days seem demarcated down to age, haircuts and political persuasions. Some cocktail bars seem to cater only to young men, and certain Logan Square restaurants seem to require a dress code. But at Italian Village, it’s come one, come all: young, energetic administrative assistants drink Jack-and-cokes after a day at the office; handsome financial traders splurge on $500 bottles of Italian wine while sharing the bar with tourist families in town to see Book of Mormon. I don’t doubt that New York has its own version of a place like this, but everywhere in this country, this sort of a melting-pot restaurant is a dying breed. Go now, splurge on an excellent bottle of Barolo, and take it all in while you can.

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