Sapori Trattoria – a Lincoln Park/Lakeview gem

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It’s a pleasure to dine at a restaurant where the food, the service and the ambiance come together seamlessly to make a memorable evening. And that’s just what happened recently at Sapori Trattoria, 2701 N. Halsted, close to the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Our party of four arrived at 5 pm for an early dinner and were delighted to feel immediately warm and welcome on a cold Saturday night.

Needing time to study the many Italian-named dishes on the menu, a couple of us found the house Cabernet Sauvignon (Fox Brook 2005) was quite good and made a nice pre-dinner cocktail at a very reasonable $6.50 a glass.

Besides the regular menu items you can find online, the evening’s menu carried an entire column full of “Featured Items” from starters to multiple pasta entrees (including the pumpkin ravioli one of us ultimately ordered), and a number of meat dishes (including Vitello Osso Bucco and the Duck Leg Confit).

Shortly after we sat down, a tray of bread arrived – excellent flavor, with moist crumb and crispy crust. I’d noticed a small bottle of olive oil and a dish of grated fresh Parmesan cheese, but when I (a die-hard butter fan) asked for some, a dish promptly arrived with two large, cold, unsalted slabs thereof. A heaven-sent version of my go-to restaurant indulgence!

We shared one order of bruschetta ($6.95) around the table. A generous portion of homemade mozzarella cheese – freshly made, light and tender – was surrounded by shavings of prosciutto and chunks of marinated tomato on toasted slices of that lusty, crusty Italian bread. Another person ordered the Caesar salad – a plateful of crisp, crunchy romaine and some very good homemade croutons, all lightly coated with owner/Executive Chef Antonio Barbanente’s own delicately seasoned dressing – delicious but perhaps slightly overpriced for the quantity at $7.95.

It was rough going choosing our main courses; almost everything on the menu had its appeal. Ted, our server, answered our many questions – including whether the pasta is house-made (it is, except penne). He patiently explained the differences in various dishes and told us which were the most popular.

We finally settled on our selections. The Maple Leaf Farms Duck Leg ($25.95) was a classic duck confit preparation – salt-cured for two days and slow-roasted in its own fat, served with sweet potato strings and 48-hour duck gravy. The Cappellacci di Zucca ($21.99), pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in a burnt butter sauce with butternut squash, sage and pine nuts, was declared a winner. Vitello Paesana ($26.99), tender veal scallopini sauteed with artichokes and cherry tomatoes in a savory delicate wine sauce, was a hit, too. We all approved our samples from a side of homemade pasta – oil and garlic caressing every noodle in a nest of rich-tasting, homemade egg-dough linguine.

My entree was a huge chunk of perfectly pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($28.99) served in an aromatic sauce with lightly steamed fresh spinach, finished with roasted tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, and beautifully tender-inside, lightly crispy-on-the-edges chunks of roasted potato. Potatoes are another of the items by which I judge a restaurant – for example, undercooked is a disaster – and these more than passed muster. The only off note was finding a couple of gristly pieces underneath the fish. Homemade pasta with seafood? I simply had to try some. Ted graciously accommodated my request for half an order of Spaghetti alla Scoglio ($23.99). This lovely dish consisted of a generous helping of seasoned seafood (clam, mussel, shrimp and scallop), cooked juste á point and served on a bed of homemade egg spaghetti. The spaghetti was delicious on its own, but it was also enveloped in a mellow and flavorful sauce – the menu says the pasta is “sautéed in marinara.” Okay. The best marinara I remember tasting in a long time. And since I feel the same way after having eaten the leftovers for breakfast, I know it wasn’t just the wine and the company that made it taste so good!

Ambiance is wonderful at Sapori. I’m a sucker for tiny white lights, and here, just the right number of these Italian standbys pinpoint the overall subtle lighting (notice how dark all the pics are!). The place is built into what must have originally been someone’s home – certainly not a restaurant. Outside the small main dining area – which has two levels, thus adding to the sense of coziness and privacy – you’ll encounter a charming rabbit warren of hallways and small rooms tucked away in cozy corners, with extra doors in surprising places. A tiny bar graces the main dining area off the street entrance, and dinner is also served in what is probably another honeycomb of rooms we didn’t go up to see on the second floor. Ted said total capacity is about 250 – a surprise, given the intimate feel of the place, although a regular diner there tells me the noise level gets uncomfortably high at prime times.

Service was friendly, warm and professional. When one of our party complained to Ted after a first taste that the salt-cured duck was too salty, he apologized for not having explained the best process for consuming this dish – interspersing bites with the sweet potato accompaniment. He acknowledged he should have given this advice upon delivering the plate. Then, a minute after Ted left, the maitre d’ arrived to also apologize and offer to replace the dish with something else. Hard to ask for more than that. Later in the evening Chef Antonio came to our table and smiled as we expressed our enthusiasm.

The tiramisu dessert ($6.99) had a decidedly light touch. Crowned with a foam of whipped cream, the ladyfinger layers were lusciously fluffy. Delicious indeed, though I usually like mine a bit heavier – more custard and a tad more rum-coffee flavoring. Panna cotta ($6.99) was super-rich with cream and chocolate-hazelnut flavor. Though I didn’t love the slightly gelatin-y mouth feel of the dish, the drizzle of thin, dark chocolatey sauce on top was a definite enhancement.

Open every day at 4:30, Sapori Trattoria has been here since 2001. Where the heck have I been?

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