Gioco: An Italian Gem in Chicago’s South Loop

I am guilty of being an extremely discerning Italian food diner. I have said to many dinner partners that I would prefer to avoid Italian restaurants, as no one is going to stack up to Ma’s homemade gnocchi, or Gram’s Bolognese. Every now and again, someone twists my wrist enough to venture out for Italian, and I leave pleasantly surprised. My recent trip to Gioco definitely hit a high note.

Ambiance is a huge part of the Italian dining experience, for me. Maybe because most of my family recipes can be traced back through the decades, or maybe because I’ve watched one too many gangster movies (although, can there ever be too many gangster movies? I mean, really?) Gioco is housed in a building that dates back to 1890, and is one of the few remaining buildings in Chicago from that era. The restaurant itself maintained most of the original charm, which is reflected through the original brick and plaster walls and the wooden walk-in cooler. The restaurant even houses a walk-in safe built into the wall, which was utilized by gangsters in the early 1900’s to house money from one of their illegal gambling (and/or brothel) houses, and a set of disguised doors leading into the back alley and straight to a clean getaway!

Moving past the atmosphere that instantaneously transports you back to the Capone era, the food itself is molto delizioso! With a trusted Cabernet Sauvignon in hand, here’s what I ate:

To open the meal courtesy of new Executive Chef, Jim Kilberg, I started off with a Polpo alla Griglia (Grilled Baby Octopus, Chick Peas, Cucumber, Tomato.) Now, the restaurant also offers a classic Calamari Fritte, which you can’t go wrong with, but the Polpo alla Griglia is the octopus dish you should go with. The octopus was plentiful and grilled perfectly. The accompaniments were a perfect summer pairing, keeping the dish light and refreshing on a steamy summer day.

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Following the grilled octopus, and keeping the light and refreshing tone that the antipasti had evoked, I went with the Anguria con Rucola (Arugula, Watermelon, Ricotta Salata, Lemon.) I can’t tell you if/when I have previously seen a watermelon salad on an Italian menu, but I’m glad I found it here! The sweetness of the watermelon, balanced with the spice of the arugula and the texture of the ricotta made it a deliciously unique offering. I highly recommend skipping run of the mill garden salads and opting for the watermelon instead.

For primi, I had the Tortelloni con Ricotta e Spinaci (Spinach & Ricotta filled Pasta, Butter, Sage, Percorino.)This was by far my favorite dish and will haunt all of my pasta cravings until the end of time! The tortelloni pasta was thin, and yet had a perfect al dente. The filling did not skimp on the spinach. Truly delicious! As if the pasta wasn’t a treasure all on its own, the sage & pecorino butter sauce really amped up and complimented the flavors of the spinach and ricotta.

While a lesser dining enthusiast may have tapped out after the tortelloni, I mustered onward with a generous serving of the Spada con Farro (Grilled Swordfish, Farro, Summer Vegetables, Pesto.) The swordfish was hearty, and grilled to perfection.

I closed out the meal with a cappuccino, which was served with a sugar cube, which I thought was a nice touch, and my favorite Italian dessert, Tiramisu (Lady Fingers, Marscapone, Espresso, Chocolate.) The tiramisu was a perfect dessert portion, and plated beautifully adorned with a lady finger sticking out of the top, and sprinkles with cocoa powder and fresh berries. Lucky for me, it tasted as good as it looked!

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If you happen to find yourself in the South Loop, or with an urge for Italian and a means to get to the South Loop, definitely give Gioco a try, you won’t be disappointed!