There are 100s of undiscovered gems in the Chicago area. This is one of them. Serving gourmet-style food at affordable, neighborhood prices, LaBella Pasteria is a more than a step above the ubiquitous Italian restaurants that dot the Chicago restaurantscape.
LaBella has been in Oak Park for many years, but new owners Dave and Ann Schultz took over the restaurant in March, and immediately began making improvements, creating an outside patio area and adding fresh pastas, vegetables, and fish to the menu. As Schultz says, “Italy is surrounded by water – fish is an important part of the cuisine!”
Fabulous aromas struck us as we walked through the door. Clearly, the restaurant was a neighborhood favorite; people were stopping and greeting one another on their way to their own tables. We were welcomed immediately and ushered quickly to our table in the intimate dining room, and brought a basket of warm, chewy Italian bread.
As he handed us our menus, Schultz explained that he was a cocktail lover and had spent time perfecting and tweaking the vintage cocktails of the 30s and 40s. I love a good cocktail too so I ordered one of Dave’s specialties, a Grapefruit Highball – which turned out to be a great way to start the meal.
Our first course was a Layered Eggplant Salad, one of the specials that our incredibly knowledgeable waiter, Gui, recommended. The salad was a surprising a mix of hot and cold - lightly breaded warm eggplant with fresh tomato, mozzarella and roast red pepper. My dining partner, who is not an eggplant fan was crazy about this dish. We both loved the surprising sweetness of the eggplant and the subtle tang of balsamic on the arugula.
After that, we tucked into the Toasted Ravioli and the LaBella Four Cheese Appetizer Pizza. Served with the tasty house red sauce, the meat and vegetable ravioli were light and flavorful. The pizza was also a hit, its flaky crust topped with quality gouda, romano, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses.
Then we turned to the pastas, which the owners procure from a variety of independent small batch pasta makers. The choices for pastas were overwhelming, including a variety of fresh vegetable raviolis and gnocchis. We finally settled on two. I ordered a Sweet Pea Ravioli that arrived perfectly cooked, bursting with fresh peas and nicely coated with a very light Alfredo sauce, not the cloyingly heavy white sauce that has become ubiquitous in many “Italian-style” restaurants. My dining companion ordered the Eight Finger Cavatelli. Gui told us the story behind the strange name: traditionally, cavatelli is made by rolling the pasta dough into strands with one hand. These cavatelli are so thick that it’s said that the only way to make them is to use two hands. These dense and delicious cavatelli arrived coated in an excellent, slightly spicy cheese and vodka sauce.
For our main course, we split the Blackened Pork Chops. The meat itself was excellent, perfectly cooked and coated in a extremely flavorful - not just hot - Cajun spice mix. And it arrived atop the best garlic spinach I have ever put in my mouth.
The entrée also comes with a side dish of broccoli and one of Gnocchi with Gorganzola, served in a wonderful garlicky butter sauce. Both side dishes were so good and so filling that they could have been main courses on their own. (At home the next night, I tossed the left-over broccoli with some pasta – fantastic!)
There is a very nice and affordable selection of beers and wines offered. The wine list tends to lean toward upscale California wines, and the Cline Zinfandel Dave recommended to compliment the Blackened Pork Chop was out of this world.
I usually find it easy to bypass desserts at Italian restaurants but I’m telling you: SAVE ROOM for these desserts!
The Tiramisu, that most ubiquitous of Italian desserts, was wonderful: delicate, delicious with just the right hint of liqueur. There was a Flourless Chocolate Cake that was terrific, creamy and rich. And my dining companion ate all the Spumoni ice cream before I could get near the dish, so I’m assuming that was good too.
But the star of the evening, for me, was the Pinot Grigio Bundt Cake. This light, flavorful cake took my breath away. All the cakes are made and delivered to the restaurant by local baker Wendy Routley Pelletiere. Ms. Pelletiere – please add me to your fan club.
The room is small and cozy and the tables are close to one another but the noise level never became overwhelming. We chatted with our neighbors occasionally, a family of four whose young daughter was clearly enjoying her food and the special nonalcoholic cocktail Dave had made for her, but we didn’t feel crowded in any way.
Ann says that Dave’s love of cocktailing and food was what led them to the restaurant. Not only do Dave and Ann work at the restaurant, their son Sam, still in high school, is being brought up in the business. Working as a busboy, Sam was all smiles as he went about his work, happily bantering with the customers and waiters.
When they took over in March, the Schultzes brought in the excellent chef Ramon Del Rio to run the kitchen. Keeping a great selection of old recipes from the original La Bella, they added new contemporary Italian dishes to the mix.
Schultz says he feels phenomenally lucky. “There’s such amazing talent here,” says Schultz, “from the chefs in the kitchen to the local pasta makers and bakers.”
Much of the original staff remains, and Dave cannot say enough about how much he values their experience and their support.
“This has been a very special experience,” Schultz says, “with an incredibly supportive staff.”
“And an incredibly supportive community,” he adds. “Oak Park has really embraced us.”
WHAT: LaBella Pasteria
WHERE: 1103 South Boulevard Oak Park, IL 60302
DON’T MISS: Cocktails, Layered Eggplant Salad, Fresh Vegetable Gnocchi, Blackened Pork Chop, Pino Grigio Bundt Cake
FOR MORE INFORMATION: (708) 524-0044
Some of the information at www.labellapasteria.com is out of date but should be updated shortly.