When Venetian born Dario Monni moved to Chicago in 2016, he noticed two things; pasta tasted bland and seemed void of texture. And egg yolks were pale yellow with a flavor that varied vastly from the tasty reddish hued ones found in Italy.
He applied his foodie background (which included stints at Gritti Palace and Michelin starred L’Anima in London plus summers spent in Sardinia with grandparents that worked as cheesemongers and butchers) to upping the pasta game in Chicago with Tortello, a cozy pastificio (fresh pasta shop) in the city’s lively Wicker Park neighborhood. But, he was missing one prerequisite for superior pasta: robust eggs. So, he did what any flavor-obsessed Italian chef would do. He called his grandmother.
“As a kid in Venice, I ate pasta twice a day every day. I woke up to the smell of simmering sauce and watched my Nonna roll out fresh dough for each meal. To recreate these flavors in the USA, I knew that I had to find rosso d’uovo, the premium quality eggs required to make authentic, Italian style pasta. Since shipping Italian eggs to the USA was cost prohibitive, I needed a plan B.”
Turns out that his grandmother fed the chickens in her yard a steady stream of beta carotene-filled squash and carrots. Monni and his partner, wife Jill Gray, set out to find an open minded poultry purveyor willing to partake in a yolk experiment. Wisconsin’s Yuppie Hill Poultry partnered on the endeavor and began to introduce marigold seeds to the grain-based feed. The yolks became a deeper shade of yellow. To get to the orange-red dimension, they added paprika to the mix. Bingo. The addition of this vibrant spice delivered yolks that seemed dead ringers for Italian ones.
The resulting dough, crafted into lesser known pasta shapes like reginette, lumache, trottole, and gnocchi-like chiusone, has been drawing crowds since the space opened in July. Sauces too speak to the power of fresh, pristine ingredients. Monni imports a bounty of cheeses, olive oils, honeys and spices from Italy and relies upon produce from select local vendors. Highlights: airy, burrata stuffed tortelli topped with brown butter, toasted hazelnuts and fresh sage (that could easily double as dessert), casarecce twists layered with saffron, sausage, onions and cream and agnolotti filled with sweet potato, mozzarella and prosciutto.
The dishes, of course, can be enhanced with a wonderful array of Italian wines.
To underscore the artisan nature of hand-crafted pasta, the restaurant’s storefront windows serve as a stage for passers by to appreciate the process as a team of sfoglinas (pasta makers) roll and cut dough into fantastical shapes all day.
Guests can either dine in the cheery, family-friendly restaurant or purchase pasta and sauces (pomodoro, pesto alla genovese, and ragu alla bolognese) to take away.
This story was first published in La Cucina Italiana on November 22, 2019.