Nico Osteria, the seafood-focused, rustic Italian restaurant located inside the Thompson Hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast, will undoubtedly be one of the city’s best new restaurant of 2014. Opened by the One Off Hospitality Group, also behind such culinary powerhouses as Avec, Big Star, The Publican, and The Violet Hour, Nico Osteria is named after a German singer-songwriter, fashion model, actress, and artist who worked with Andy Warhol and sang with the Velvet Underground. Naming itself after someone who did many things exceedingly well, Nico Osteria has set its expectations quite high, and exceed those expectations Nico Osteria does.
The restaurant is arranged in an “L” shape and surrounds an open kitchen. A counter with bar stools lines that kitchen and gives guests a front row seat to the chefs in bicycle hats that create exquisite dishes that include fresh crudo, the Italian version of sashimi; homemade pastas; incredible fettunta, or bruschetta; and whole fish. Lights are dim, colors are warm and muted, and the aroma of delicious southern Italian cooking abounds.
Wines are Italian and Greek, beers are Midwest, and cocktails are unique and amazing. If you are lucky enough to have Antonio as your server, listen to every recommendation he offers and the guidance he offers; you are in good hands. Dishes are meant to be shared, and sharing you will want to do in order to taste and explore a variety of the menu.
Start with the kanpachi crudo, featuring crispy potato that offers a nice smokiness to the light, fresh fish. The grilled octopus fettunta, with pocha beans, shallot treviso jam, and olives, sitting atop garlic-rubbed, grilled bread, was one of the highlights of the night, showcasing the rustic, composed flavors that are Nico Osteria. Lobster spaghetti was a study in spicy tomato sauce perfection. A full pound of lobster, divided in half and remaining in its shell, serves as a flavorful vessel for the perfectly cooked spaghetti. If my parents had not previously taught me table manners, I would have licked the entire plate clean. The salt-crusted wild branzino, served whole, with wild mushrooms and the most delicious currants imaginable, was perfectly cooked, incredibly flavorful, and more than enough for four people. A side order of hen of the woods mushrooms exquisitely rounded out the dish. Don’t overlook the complimentary foccacia bread, embedded with salty picholine olives, and served with deeply flavored Italian olive oil.
One would be remiss to skip dessert. Amanda Rockman, formerly of L20, The Bristol, and Balena, and of “Top Chef: Just Desserts” fame, works her magic with the Nico torte, a buttercake that features sabayon, pumpkin, and soaked plums. For something a big lighter, but just as flavorful, try the housemade pistachio gelato.
The ambiance, service, beverage program, and food are perfection – an overdue addition to the stale “Viagra Triangle” restaurant scene. Situated in a hotel, Nico Osteria serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. A restaurant effortlessly showcasing simplistic Italian goodness, Nico Osteria should make its namesake proud.