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Chicago Italian RestaurantJust good “old-time italian food” including “fab” pizza more than makes up for the lack in ambiance at this “great neighborhood” “mall storefront” in Lincoln Park; even so, “dining room is so tiny” you may want to consider carryout or delivery.”

Best Italian ChicagoDon’t be misled by the shopping mall setting at La Gondola Once you’re inside this trim, tiny (only five tables) restaurant, good looks reign, from the freshly painted pumpkin-toned walls to white tablecloths and a large oil painting of – you guessed it – gondolas. Owners Dominic Amodeo and Luciano Libreri, who hail from Sicily, are fans of all things Italian, especially food. They opened in the mall last November after closing their original and much larger digs located a meatball’s toss south on Ashland. Their menu retains its former girth, offering everything from tripe Florentine to a passel of pastas to lobster Monte Carlo. While lobsters are strictly crustacea non grata on the cheap eats beat, pastas should do the trick. Good bets include artichoke-heart-and-caper-strewn penne alla puttanesca ($11), heft ravioli made on the premises ($10), and a manicotti ($10) so rich and cheesy it could give Carmella Soprano a twinge of envy. Another winner is rigatoni boscaiola ($10), tender tubular pasta awash in a creamy tomato sauce with sausage, tomato, and mushrooms. A house salad, soup of the day, or generous bowl of chunky minestrone partners every entrée. Topping it all off with a cup of potent espresso just might have you believing that there is a canal, rather than an Office Depot, right outside.

Best Italian Restaurant ChicagoPalate gets delicious ride at La Gondola
How close are the tables at La Gondola Ristorante? So close that when a diner at a neighboring table squeezes a lemon you get spritzed. How delicious is the food at La Gondola? So delicious that you’re more than willing to put up with occasional inconveniences like that. La Gondola is an old-fashioned neighborhood place reminiscent of Italian restaurants of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The waiters have accents, opera tapes provide the background music, and the décor is dominated by mirrors on one wall and huge paintings of gondolas on the others. The restaurant is tiny and they have no space for niceties like a foyer at the entrance—you open the door and practically fall into the first table’s soup. All is forgiven, though, when you sample the wide-ranging, but not trendy, menu.

We began with the appetizer special: chicken livers sautéed in white wine, mushrooms and sage. This was a generous, rich dish, in which the redolent herbs nicely complemented the delicate meat. Main courses come with soup, salad and bread and butter. Our bread had stayed too long in the warming over, giving it a bulletproof exterior but not harming an interior of hot, fresh Italian sourdough.

Salads were crisp and ample, though the house vinaigrette could have stood more vinegar. The soup, on the other hand, couldn’t have been improved. Minestrone is on the menu of almost every Italian restaurant, and it’s usually forgettable. La Gondola’s version recaptured the dish’s magic: rich broth, large chunks of tender, but not overcooked, fresh vegetables. It was like eating the distilled essence of a garden.

Main courses came up to these high standards. Veal Saltimbocca was a superb marriage of tender veal, whole mushrooms and proscuitto in another unusually rich sauce. Chicken alla Gondola turned out to be a glorified variation of chicken Vesuvio. It had Vesuvio’s broiled chicken and potatoes, but added sausage, green peppers and huge mushrooms. Ours had a nice smokiness that went well with the wine sauce. Portions are enormous and sauces are rich, so desserts have to be especially good to tempt you. The homemade cannoli is – delicate shell filled with fresh, sweet ricotta.

*** 3 Stars

River North News, A Taste of Venice

Picturing an atmospheric, white table cloth restaurant on north Ashland Avenue is not an easy task, but it won’t be after one visit to the newly remodeled La Gondola Restaurant at 2425 N Ashland. Immediately upon entering, one is greeted by the maitre’d and shown past the bar on the let into the dining room which is nicely furnished with an atmosphere of quiet sophistication. All the servers were extremely friendly and prompt and helpful with suggestions and special orders.

For appetizers, try the fried calamari, which is an order so generous, it will feed four easily. The squid are crisp yet tender and not the least bit greasy. Sliced tomatoes with homemade buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil were not on the menu but recommended by our waitress and were also a wonderful choice. Plenty of ripe tomato slices were adorned with the delicious fresh cheese and plenty of fresh basil and a very good quality olive oil.

All dinners are served with soup or salad. The salad is a common blend of iceberg lettuce and a couple of hard tomato slices but the soups are fabulous. Both the minestrone, which was so thick it could be eaten with a fork and the escarole soup, were delicious.

Pastas are the best dishes at La Gondola, all of the served very al dente so they still have a little fight left in them after sauced. Shrimp Diavolo over linguine had at least a half-pound of medium shrimp in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. Likewise, linguine with fresh tomato sauce was also an extremely large portion and the fresh sauce was very flavorful if perhaps just a bit too oily. Both pasta dishes were so generous they could have easily been shared.

For veal lovers, Veal Montecarlo with mushrooms, artichokes, eggplant, and a white wine sauce is a real feast. The dish is served piping hot and full of rich veal and fresh eggplant and mushrooms. This is a veal lover’s special as the veal was as tender as any we had elsewhere at this price.

If possible, save room for the tiara mi su, which, while not as tasty as some others we have had, is still a very good rendition. Homemade cannoli was a little sweet for my taste, but the others loved it.

Best Italian Restaurant in ChicagoLa Gondola thinks big; so must patrons Lingering 3 hours over a 9 or 10 course meal at a fine French restaurant doesn’t seem unreasonable. But a three or four course meal of nearly that duration in a restaurant that bills itself as northern Italian seems excessive. Some Italian restaurants in Chicago warn on their menus that it takes a long time to prepare good food, advising diners to sit back and relax. Such warnings generally mean that the kitchen staff simply isn’t all that professional and gets bogged down when the restaurant is busy. Such warning should be appropriate at La Gondola, although none appears on the menu, because long pauses occur between courses even when only a handful of customers populate the dining room.

La Gondola will win no awards for design. It’s a room, just a room with inoffensive gold-beige wallpaper, large white-clothed tables, a bar at the rear and a painting or two. The fact that oversized tables sit throughout the dining room helps focus attention where it belongs here: on the food. Those tables have to be big in order to accommodate the huge portions.

Although diners may go away frustrated from the waiting, they certainly won’t leave hungry. Doggy bags toted away with diners are the rule rather than the exception. Prices are moderate, and given that a visit often produces enough leftovers for a meal the next day, the restaurant offers good value.

An array of cold cuts and cheeses arrives on an oversized platter atop lettuce with decorative carrots and peppers, making this one the best antipasto presentation in the city. Although billed as an antipasto for one, it easily provides enough munchies to whet the appetites of two. A half-dozen large homemade ravioli, battered and deep fried crisp on the outside yet still al dente under the coating, come stuffed with a rather tasteless, grainy, ground meat filling, which benefits greatly from the flavorful marinara sauce on the side. Thin circles of deep fried zucchini taste fresh, but the batter disappoints after the ravioli because it does not stay crisp.

Pasta lovers will want to keep La Gondola a secret. Pastas turn out perfectly prepared with just the slightest resistance to the bite. Although sauces other than the marinara tend to lack intensity, pastas are a good bet here. Indeed, an appetizer plus a pasta course should satisfy most diners.

For example, linguine with clam sauce arrives piled high in a large bowl with a host of clams in the shell. The plump puffs of clam make this a wonderful dish that should be split by two if intended as a second course.

The huge platter heaped with Chicken ala Gondola – a glorified version of Chicken Vesuvio augmented by sausage, mushrooms and peppers in a white wine sauce – arrives after a wait of some time with the chicken cooked to a surprisingly dark brown on the outside, yet with moist meat under the skin.

Excellent quality, extremely white veal cuts easily with a fork, the acid test of quality veal. Prepared as a simple veal francaise, it tastes somewhat bland, but then what can one expect from veal in a white wine sauce?

Gargantuan might not adequately describe the size of some of the entrees. The misto de pesce, a mix of stuffed squid, baked clams and breaded butter flied jumbo shrimp, should satisfy even the heartiest of eaters. While pristinely fresh, the breaded shrimp and baked clams, along with the bread and sausage-stuffed squid, make this just too much to handle. Moreover, this dish falls flat not only because of the sameness of the breading used with the various seafood but also because it’s seasoning is deficient.

All entrees come with a mundane leaf lettuce and tomato salad drenched in too much salty dressing. Soups are also included with entrees. The minestrone soup tasted a good deal like the vegetable soup Grandma used to make, which is not to say it was bad, just plain. Although desserts are offered, who could possibly face them after this much food? Chicago may be known for its huge portions, but this is ridiculous.

If a mountain of food at a reasonable price is the goal, La Gondola should serve well. Given the quality of its pastas and the ingredients that go into other dishes, this restaurant could stand out from the pack of Italian restaurants if the seasonings get punched up and the lapses between courses are shortened.

*** 3 Stars