Italian import

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September Issue View more

You never know where or when your Next Big Idea will strike you. For Tim McEnery, it happened during a vacation to Italy.

He was in Rome with his fiancée, who was in charge of picking which restaurants to visit (the irony of this will be apparent shortly). She found a tiny pizzeria near the Trevi Fountain, and despite the long line (or possibly partly because of it), they decided to stop in for a meal.

McEnery was so impressed by the pizza, he spoke to owner Luca Issa about bringing the concept to the States. Issa initially demurred, explaining that the intricacies of the restaurant business were beyond the understanding of your average tourist. But when Issa learned that McEnery was founder and CEO of Cooper’s Hawk, a wine and restaurant with more than 50 U.S. locations, discussions quickly became more serious. Issa traveled to Illinois and soon agreed to create a concept—named Piccolo Buco, like the Rome original—which made its June debut at Oakbrook Center (in the space that once housed Lord & Taylor).

The full name is actually Piccolo Buco by Cooper’s Hawk; the longer name signals that members of Cooper’s Hawk’s wine club can enjoy their various benefits (monthly wine bottles, retail discounts) at Piccolo Buco as well.

“The whole idea with Piccolo was to be an amenity for the wine club members,” McEnery says. “It gives them another dining option, and all their benefits and privileges work across the brand. It keeps it fun and interesting, and of course, they all eat pizza.”

Customers are likely to be thrilled with the pizza part of the equation. The pies at Piccolo Buco have a thin, wet center typical of the Neapolitan style, but are distinguished by a tall, slightly blistered heel whose crusty exterior yields to a puffy, airy interior. When your pizza arrives, your server will create slices by cutting the pie with special scissors (this is common in Italy), ostensibly to preserve the integrity of the delicate crust but also adding a bit of theater to the meal. (McEnery, who misses very few tricks, makes the scissors available for retail purchase. Also available are the showy, gravity-fed decanters used to pour red wine.)

The menu offers 13 pizze (pizza) varieties, divided among red (traditional marinara-style sauce), white (cheese sauce, no tomatoes), and yellow (yellow-tomato sauce). I tried the red pizza made with ’nduja (a spicy, spreadable salume) and the yellow vegan pizza; both were first-rate, but I found the sweetness of the yellow-tomato sauce especially intriguing.

There’s more to the menu than pizzas, though. Entrées include steak, salmon, and short ribs, three items you’ll also find at Cooper’s Hawk, though in different guises. I tried the “half roasted chicken” (my inner editor wants to change that to “roasted half-chicken”), a very good bird with roasted potatoes, garlicky spinach, and a Parmesan-caper vinaigrette. Among the half-dozen pasta offerings is a rich and indulgent cappellacci—hat-shaped, cheese-filled pasta pockets in a luxurious black-truffle butter sauce with toasted pistachio and drizzles of balsamic vinegar.

Appetizers include excellent arancini, crispy rice balls stuffed with pecorino Romano cheese and bits of Calabrian sausage, over tomato sauce. Stuffed squash blossoms, a summertime treat, are filled with a four-cheese blend and fried to a gentle crisp, served with tomato fondue and lemon aïoli.

Why am I recommending squash blossoms in September, when they’re out of season? McEnery says he found an Illinois-based greenhouse that can supply squash blossoms year-round. In the same vein, Piccolo Buco imports its tomato sauces from an Italian farm that Issa has relied on for years. “We’re planning on keeping yellow pizzas available all year,” McEnery says.

The beverage list is unsurprisingly dominated by Cooper’s Hawk wines (all available by the bottle or glass), but there’s also more than a dozen Italian wines, modestly priced except for a few cult selections. (Modest wine prices are a huge part of Cooper’s Hawk’s appeal; of the 37 Cooper’s Hawk labels, only seven cost more than $40.)

Piccolo Buco doesn’t take reservations, which McEnery says initially befuddled wine club members because reservations are the norm at Cooper’s Hawk. But Piccolo Buco does have a waiting list that’s accessible on the restaurant’s website; place your name on the list, and you’ll be told approximately when your table will be available and receive a text when your table is actually ready. (I tried this system twice, and it was easy and accurate.)

Given the number of Cooper’s Hawk locations, is it reasonable to assume that more Piccolo Buco restaurants are on the way?

“I think you’re safe there,” McEnery says. “We certainly have delusions of grandeur of opening another one someday. But we’re pacing ourselves; we want to get this first location perfect.” 

Photos courtesy of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants