RPM Italian...It's What's For Dinner...If You Can Get In...(2012)
I admit, I myself am shocked that it took me this long to write about what has become my favorite new restaurant of the last several years. RPM Italian, in River North, has already made a big mark on our fair city in the few months since its opening and has proven it deserves a long stay at the top of the Chicago culinary and nightlife scene.
For those of you who don't know, RPM stands for the coalition of the partners who created the venue. Bill and Giuliana Rancic (everyone's favorite TV personalities), Chef Doug Psaltis, and the Melman siblings (RJ, Jerrod, and Molly of the Lettuce Entertain You empire). It seemed to me that this was a perfect storm for RPM to achieve restaurant royalty: You have 2 well loved celebrities, a Michelin star chef, and undoubtably the best and most prolific restauranteurs in the country. There was no question that when I first went to RPM on friends and family night that I would love it...I just didn't necessarily think that I would end up spending more time there than at my Sicilian grandmothers house.
So here's why this place kills it... the food, the drinks, the vibe, and the ambiance- oh, that's pretty much everything, isn't it? Let's start with the food. They went the "small plates" route for a large portion of the menu. This is actually refreshing for an Italian restaurant because not only are the dishes affordable, but they're perfect for sharing, and the portions are not the typical mountain of pasta served in a trough (that no one has any business eating) that we see so often at typical Italian locations. Their menu has several different groupings of their small plates: Hot and Cold antipasti, pizzette, crudo, salumi and cheeses, items from the wood oven, small bites (mini arancini, olives), and pastas. Some of my favorite dishes (pretty much of all time, not just at RPM) are from these small plates. The Polenta, Poached Egg is one of the most decadent items I've ever had. It is the most creamy polenta possible with the distinct flavor of black truffle laced throughout with thick shavings of aged parmesan as garnish. When the poached egg is broken and strewn throughout it will literally blow you away. I've recommended this dish to about 20 people and everyone goes nuts for it. The Prime Beef Meatballs. This is a controversial one as everyone knows my Sicilian grandmother, Rosalia Rizzo, makes the most delicious and tender meatballs on Earth. NEVER had I eaten at a restaurant that has even remotely come close to replicating her recipe...not until RPM. Psaltis is the first guy that I can actually say, "Wow, this guy knows how to make a freakin' meatball!" I feel like no one has gotten it...'til now. Needless to say, "I'm sorry Nanna" but you've met your match. The Shredded Brussels Sprouts Salad can turn ANYONE into a fan of the notorious green vegetable. It is laced with mashed avocado and has been my go-to for when I want a delicious but light & healthy meal. Finally, Mama DePandi's Bucatini Pomodoro (named for it's inventor, Giuliana's mom). ALL of the pasta at RPM is cooked perfectly al dente. The bucatini is a wide spaghetti that does the delicious sauce (sweet with a spicy kick and plenty of fresh basil) major justice.
The drinks are simply sublime. I have discovered my new staple cocktail...the Negroni Sbagliato. I don't know if people truly understand my obsession with this drink, except maybe my friend, RJ Melman, who has seen me polish off quite a few. It is a combo of prosecco and Campari with a bit of sweet vermouth served over ice with an orange peel twist. It's a bitter libation, but even those who aren't a fan of Campari really do enjoy it...I have turned MANY people into fans simply by trying this drink. They have a great wine list that is true to the Italian varietals and several great choices of Prosecco and Italian beers as well.
The "scene" and ambiance are first class. It is sexy and swanky but NOT gaudy or trendy. Almost every person I bring there says they feel like they're in LA or in Miami and immediately comments on how beautiful it is. It is ALWAYS packed... and I mean always. Even on a Monday at 8pm, expect to wait at least an hour for a table. If you're making reservations for anytime within 30 days, expect to be seated at either 5pm or 9pm or later. It is tough and it's crowded. But fortunately, there is a huge rectangular bar that has a ton of seating as well as a large bar area that's "first come first serve". So if you can get a spot, you can enjoy the full menu. Chances are you will be surrounded by beautiful people and the "who's who" of Chicago. You'll also like see some of the Melman crew who are always bustling about, and quite frequently you can catch a glimpse of Bill and/or Giuliana who love to have dinner in their favorite booth by the bar. Even though it's a restaurant, it's open late (even until 3am on Sat) and serves food until close. They have a DJ that spins cool tracks and keeps the vibe fun and upbeat.
Unfortunately, RPM has gotten some flack for not being "authentic" enough. Anyone that has thrown out this criticism has no idea where the partners were clearly going with their concept. This is a modern take on Italian food. They have a very contemporary approach to several traditional dishes, as well as being innovative with new Italian inspired concepts. Some of the dishes ARE completely authentic, however. As I stated before, the meatballs, rival my Sicilian nanna's old family recipe. They even do a "Cacio e pepe" pasta (cheese and pepper) which is a very simple and traditional dish. My family used to make this when they didn't have time to make sauce. You take high quality al dente pasta, with imported aged "formaggio" and voila!...an amazing dinner. Also, they take an authentic dish, such as Insalata Caprese, and add chunks of lobster tail to give it a sexy contemporary flair. Basically, the haters need to stop hating because it's clear that RPM is it's own unique entity and they're not trying to be the neighborhood authentic hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and needs to be appreciated as such.
Clearly it's easy to see why I love this place. Surely some of the staff may already be getting sick of me, as I'm there for dinner or drinks at least a couple times a week :-) But now it's time for those of you who have NOT checked it out yet, to go. Trust me, you will NOT be disappointed. All the servers are top notch and are great at giving recommendations, however, if you want some more from me, let me know, as I've certainly tried nearly everything on the menu!