I write about wine regions and their wines in this space but I love good food and thoughtful wine lists too!
Saba is an Italian syrup made from cooking down grape must, it is the first step in the process of making balsamic vinegar. To make balsamic, the sweet, cooked must is then fermented and aged. Italians have used the mosto cotto (saba) as a sweetener and when made carefully, it can have a lot of complexity. This description is fitting for SABA Italian Bar + Kitchen at 2715 North Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. It’s a neighborhood restaurant that has put a lot of thoughtfulness into their menu and complexity in their food and drinks. I was fortunate to attend a preview of the new Spring menu by Executive Chef Jesus Castillo and Chef de Cuisine Juan Ramirez.
We started out with cocktails and this sweet/savory “The Bison Goes West“. I did not know that Zubrowka “Zu” Bison grass flavored vodka has a cult following as Eater writes about here. Dolin Dry vermouth, Brovo 14 amaro and burnt orange shrub round out the ingredients with, of course, a freshly roasted marshmallow adorning the glass. Each ingredient was from a quality producer and the cocktail was more savory than sweet.
Among many appetizers that graced the table, the fried calamari below were definitely not your run of the mill squid. The batter on the calamari was light and more tempura-like, the castelvetrano olives, sautéed celery and calabrian chili made this almost a meal. I could have easily finished the entire bowl and ordered more. The slice of lemon was not really needed. If I find myself in this neighborhood, I would make a point to go in just to get the calamari again.
The wine list had lots to offer. On the red side, I have always thought of the Piedmont dolcetto grape as merlot’s northern Italian cousin. The grapes are not genetically related but when you sip a well-made dolcetto, it has that black fruit, mouthfilling plushness of a merlot. G.D. Vajra makes Barolos and is a well-thought of producer. Le Piane is one of those hidden gem producers of Piedmont. They are located in Boca, a DOC near the DOCG area of Gattinara in Alto Piemonte. Boca is an area where nebbiolo grows and is called spanna. Le Piane is one of my favorite “go to” producers of lighter bodied nebbiolo wines and I was really happy to see it on Saba’s winelist. It is easy to go with big brand producers that offer wines at low costs when it comes to neighborhood restaurant wine lists. Seeing that the wines selected were from quality producers gave me an indication that that is probably the way they are looking at sourcing their food and designing their plates.
I did not try an Italian cream soda but they sound rather decadent and a drink I could probably quaff down too quickly. They are one more thing to go back and try.
The insalata di la casa, aka house salad, aka “garbage salad” of steakhouse menus, reminded me of an old school Italian house salad. It was dressed well with an “Italian dressing” and full of soppressata and pepperoncini and cheese. This was another dish that I could have easily made just a meal with a glass of wine.
As we move into Spring in Chicago, the greenness of the gnocchi al pesto was welcome. One of my favorite pestos is arugula. This dish included potato gnocchi (I still need to work on perfecting my own gnocchi), grilled chicken, pine nuts, calabrian chili and arugula pesto.
I got my “umami” on with this mushroom pizza.
I loved this scallop dish. The scallops were cooked really well and I love parsnips. Parsnips are such a signature of the midwest and root vegetables. The drippings from the scallops ran into the parsnips and along with the freshness of the greens, made for a great bite.
We tasted many other dishes, the polpo, the arancini, the burrata, the caesar salad, the carbonara and the braised short rib. Despite this abundance of savory dishes, I had to try the tiramisu.
There is a lot going on between Sawyer and Spaulding Avenue on Milwaukee in Logan Square. The folks behind Saba are focused on bringing good food and wine places to the neighborhood and with Saba, mission accomplished!