Chicago is a city of neighborhoods but also a city of restaurants. When anyone asks me for restaurant recommendations, or even neighborhoods they should try out, I must admit that I tend to default to some of the more obvious downtown-centric areas. Now that I have experienced Saba Italian Bar + Kitchen (2715 North Milwaukee), I can tell you that Logan Square has moved towards the top of my culinary recommendations.
Saba is one of the most recent establishment opened by One of a Kind Hospitality – a company founded by Esam Hani, a philanthropic restaurateur and native from the ever-growing and changing Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square. His goal has always been to promote Logan Square and to help make that area a destination – not just for a quick visit, but for exploration and enjoyment. His hospitality group currently operates Café Con Leche, The Harding Tavern, Red Star Liquor, The Walk-In, Saba Italian Bar + Kitchen, and most recently The Old Plank. All of these establishments are located in the same two-block stretch of North Milwaukee Avenue, just steps from the CTA Blue Line.
Clearly, One of a Kind Hospitality wants to make a mark on Logan Square, and they have done just that once again with Saba Italian Bar + Kitchen which they bill as “an Italian restaurant and bar with innovative and approachable cuisine and beverages.” After a recent visit, I can attest that Saba is not only innovative and approachable – it is a stand-out in a city filled with Italian restaurants.
This effort is helmed by Executive Chef Jesus Castillo and Chef de Cuisine Juan Ramirez. Both chefs are highly seasoned with over 20 years and 13 years’ experience respectively at some of Chicago hottest restaurants including Spiaggia, Mia Francesca’s, and RPM Italian. As for the restaurant’s name, it is derived from a sauce often called “mosto cotto” which translates as “cooked grape juice.” Saba sauce is made from the must produced from a combination of red and white grapes. The must is pressed and the juice is cooked until it becomes syrupy and mildly sweet. It can then be used in any number of cooking preparations.
A group of food writers and other media were recently invited to sample many of the signature items on the Saba dinner menu. Over the course of the meal, they served family-style portions of fourteen dishes. Needless to say, we were all overwhelmed by the end. Here are the standouts (for me), but don’t limit yourself to just these items. Saba is also open for lunch and weekend brunch, so there are many more things to try. In the meantime, for a dinner visit, you may want to consider the following:
- Calamari Fritti (fried calamari, caste Beltrano olives, celery, Calabrian chili): The breading was not overwhelming, almost like a light tempura batter. The combination of fried olives, celery, and chilis was inspired and elevated this from a “standard” appetizer into something special.
- Caesar Salad (charred romaine hearts, white anchovies, Caesar dressing, hard boiled eggs, and croutons): On first glance, you might think, “Really? You recommend something so ordinary?” What I loved about this was – well, everything. They serve it in a style very familiar in Italy – cutting the romaine hearts in half and then lightly grilling them. The salad is then served with the intact romaine halves, lightly dressed and served with house-made croutons. If you like anchovies, ask for extra. This was a superior salad!
- Burrata (burrata di bufalo, arugula, black mission figs jam, Saba): The burrata was fantastic, but what moved this from “good” to “excellent” was the addition of the Saba sauce and the black mission figs. The flavor combinations were perfectly-matched with each other.
- Pasta Carbonara (peppered bacon, mascarpone cheese, butter glaze, egg yolk, and chives): If I had to rank the items we tried this was #2 by just an edge. The pasta – of course – is freshly prepared and cooked perfectly al dente. The winner on this dish was the egg yolk. Once that is pierced and allowed to melt into the other ingredients, this dish becomes something extremely special. Beware if you are sharing plates – you and your guests may fight over this one.
- Campesante e Pastinaca (pan seared sea scallops, micro greens, parsnip puree, crispy prosciutto): I saved the best for last. This was clearly my #1 favorite of the evening. I have never considered the combination of scallops and parsnips, but now that I have tried it I will be thinking about it frequently. The scallops were perfectly seared, served atop the gorgeous parsnip puree, and garnished with the special ingredient that made this dish my favorite – the crispy bits of prosciutto. If you are a seafood lover, you absolutely must try this dish.
Saba has an array of traditional Italian desserts and after-dinner cocktails. You can rarely go wrong with something as iconic as Tiramisu or Cannoli – both of which were superb. The cocktail program is equally impressive. Don’t miss out on the following:
- Saba Old Fashioned: This one is crafted with Bonded Bourbon or brandy, spiced Saba Demerara bitters, and orange oil. I tried both the bourbon and brandy versions – equally excellent although I lean a bit in the brandy direction. My suggestion? Have two and try one of each.
- Vesper: I Don’t Even Know Her: Not only a clever name, but a clever cocktail. This one mixes lemongrass-infused vodka with a splash if Empress 1908 gin along with Cocchi Americano. If you don’t know Empress 1908 – you should! It’s a stellar gin infused with butterfly pea blossoms to lend a vibrant indigo color. This cocktail is both beautiful and well-balanced.
- The Bison Goes West: Bison Grass Vodka, Dolin Dry Brovo 14, and burnt orange shrub. A great combination, but then served with a toasted marshmallow! This one is definitely unusual, but with a lovely balanced flavor – both sweet and slightly bitter.
The Saba wine list is, of course, predominantly Italian wines (and some excellent ones) but offers a number of other discerning options. Although it may change over time, the current list includes such interesting non-Italian offerings as Birichino (Monterey, CA, 2015, Malvasia), Meinklang (Bergenland, Austria, 2017, Grüner Veltliner), Weninger Balf (Transdanubia, Hungary, 2015, Kekfrankos), and Weinhaus Heger (Baden, German, 2014, Pinot Noir).
I was once asked about the criteria for writing reviews here on The Local Tourist. When I asked the editor that, nearly eight years ago before my first review, I was told, “If you would not recommend it to your best friends, don’t write the review.” With Saba, I can confidently say that I would not only recommend it to my best friends, I would insist on joining them when they try it out.
Saba Italian Bar + Kitchen is located in Logan Square at 2715 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60647. Saba is open seven days a week serving lunch, dinner, and brunch on weekends. Saba is open Monday through Thursday from 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM, Friday from 11:00 AM to midnight, Saturday from 10:00 AM to midnight (kitchen until 11:00 PM), and Sunday 10:00 AM to 11:00 PM (kitchen until 10:00 PM).