Old School vs. New School Italian: Franco’s Ristorante Battles Bar Siena

I’m one of those people who believes in progress. When the Industrial Revolution was revolutionizing industry, I was not one of those people who had Frankenstein-esque worries about how the advent of technology was playing God. I also was a wizard of apparently impressive life-extending powers.

Whatever the case may be, I’ve never quite held much truck with the dusty nostalgia of traditional Italian restaurants, old red- and white-checkered tablecloths soaked in Sinatra’s voice and sepia photos while giant piles of marinara steamed gently. But I have friends who do, and so I suggested Franco’s Ristorante, voted best neighborhood restaurant in the reader’s poll at Chicago Reader. Stashed away on a corner of 31st, it’s got a fresh makeover of a bar and enough gold-riveted red leather chairs to feel like Iron Man was dismantled into furniture.

Franco's Ristorante (DNA Info).JPG
(DNAinfo)

Apparently, Franco’s also believes in the progress of its interior design, but the menu is traditional in many ways. The opening grilled calamari is pleasantly tender, but buried in enough greens and thick balsamic to practically be a salad. If you’re going to sell me a salad, you better warn me it’s a salad. Some might also accuse it of being overdressed, but that’s never quite bothered me.

Warning bells go off in my head when I ask the waitress if any of the pastas besides the marked gnocchi are handmade. She scoffs in a manner as if I just asked if they’re taking meals out of TV dinner cartons for the microwave. When a white wine orrecchiette comes out, the little ears of pasta are sadly uniform and sadlier bland. A couple dry chunks of chicken float around the spinach. But my friends sing the praises of the gnocchi, those little nubs of semolina and potato that taste like nothing to me.

I certainly didn’t hate Franco’s. It was pleasant and charming and instantly forgettable. Any thoughts of it were wiped away by Bar Siena.

bar-siena
(Bar Siena)

The offshoot of big sister Siena Tavern, of Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani, the restaurant is a predictably trendy West Loop spot, spared its own visual mediocrity by the incredible anchoring of a giant spiraling braid of branches strung with Christmas lights. I made sure to position myself at the table to stare at it, and I understood how moths feel just before they fly into the zapper.

We began with the chicken wings diavolo, another exercise in forgettability. Slightly funky from some dunbarton blue with a quick-receding heat, these were almost instantly Eternal Sunshined from my mind. The burrata and grilled eggplant pizza was even worse. Desiccated pieces of eggplant acquired an almost bitter-sour taste along with unseasoned burrata, but they were still improvements on patches of barren pizza. You know a pie is struggling when you’re searching for slices with the good parts. I want my pizza to be all good parts.

But Bar Siena manages a pair of pastas that go in two wildly divergent yet satisfying paths. A sweet corn ravioli holds all five seconds of summer in a delicate truffle butter, speckled with chiodini mushrooms. The folds of pasta melt away like rice paper and there’s no need to ask if they’re house-made. Meanwhile, a short rib lasagna arrives piping hot in a small ceramic dish, but it’s chunky and assertive, rich with tallegio and bechamel and utterly comforting.

It’s a bit of a conundrum. Lasagna is as old-school a dish you can find, but the attention to detail trumped anything I had at Franco’s. Bar Siena was by no means perfect, but they were always more interesting. That’s the thing about the new school, they’re a musician with two notes instead of one. I just want them to be all good parts.

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