Balancing Act

September 2021 View more

Refining the rustic. Rusticizing the refined. These are the seemingly contradictory objectives at the heart of elevating Italian cuisine, which generally has at its roots a deeply ingrained sense of simplicity and tradition that would appear to defy any attempt at sheen or pretense. But to characterize a task as difficult is not to declare it impossible—and plenty of talented restaurateurs have managed to walk this line with aplomb. Chicago’s long-beloved and recently shuttered Spiaggia serves as a prime example.

There is no shortage of Italian fare here in the western suburbs, which includes everything from talented newcomers putting their own spin on the classics to massive chain outlets cranking out the standards. Chef Claudio Ulivieri is betting that he too can strike a balance between the simple traditions of his homeland and the higher-end tastes of the Oak Brook scene with the ambitious Lucca Osteria & Bar (1415 W. 22nd St., 630.866.7234,        

“Lucca is authentic Italian food prepared with extremely fresh ingredients in a lively atmosphere,” says managing partner Steven Hartenstein. “We are in a perfect location to get locals from all of the surrounding suburbs, while also attracting out-of-town visitors from the hotels and shoppers from across the street.”

Reading the Room

The street in question, of course, is bustling 22nd Street, where Lucca occupies the lobby space of conjoined office towers directly across from Oakbrook Center—the retail destination that seems to be weathering the mall apocalypse better than many of its peers. Oakbrook Center boasts many other fine dining options, but on the Saturdy night of our visit, the valet lot at Lucca was bumper to bumper, and the restaurant’s long, narrow dining room grew ever more crowded and energetic as the evening progressed.       

An impressive bar and wine collection sits just inside the entrance, while an attractively landscaped patio beckons alfresco diners just outside the front door. As straightforward as the physical surroundings may seem, however, the aggressively diverse aural atmosphere is enough to give an Italian traditionalist pause. 

Local Flavor

While their appreciation for the musical soundtrack may vary, it stands to reason that most diners will be in full agreement about the quality and authenticity of Lucca Osteria’s impressive menu. Inspired by Ulivieri’s upbringing in the Tuscan town of Altopascio, selections run the gamut of Italian cuisine, from a half-dozen pastas to a variety of meat and fish options to an antipasti selection populated by a host of traditional favorites—including carpaccio, calamari, and caprese. 

That appetizer slate also includes a delicious take on classic shrimp scampi, with those same succulent crustaceans taking a star turn in one of the evening’s specials and my entrée choice: the shrimp scampi risotto. The humble portion size, complemented by a quartet of shrimp, may have made this dish feel a bit underwhelming for the noble price tag, but the depth of flavor here was worth every penny. Rustic and elevated at once, this was a risotto for the ages—and a worthy splurge whenever it again reemerges on Ulivieri’s menu. 

Elsewhere, from a pasta selection that includes an intriguing fettucine dish with Italian sausage, mushrooms, and truffle butter served and flamed in a Parmesan wheel, we decided to sample instead the rigatoni dell’orto, a solid combination featuring seasonal vegetables in a sun-dried tomato pesto. We rounded out the meal with sides of crispy Brussels sprouts with a balsamic drizzle (memorable) and roasted rosemary potatoes (sadly, not).

Ending the evening on a sweet note, we divided and conquered a chocolate lava cake (claiming one of the last remaining on a busy Saturday night) and a healthy serving of coconut sorbet in a mock half-shell. This fitting balance—between rich density and light refreshment—turned out to be one of several that Lucca Osteria & Bar managed to pull off over the course of the meal. 

Photo courtesy Lucca Osteria & Bar