When it comes to Italian restaurants, pasta gets all the press. Chef Paul Kahan understands the enthusiasm but is tired of only one great tradition getting a fair shake stateside. That's why he opened Nico Osteria, Chicago's first seafood-centric Italian eatery, influenced in large part from his time in Puglia, the sea-tossed heel of the boot.
"We traveled up and down the coast with the aid of a tour guide named Livio Colapinto," says Kahan. "Livio was Carlo Petrini's [founder of the University of Gastronomic Sciences] assistant, so he knew all the great slow food destinations. We asked him to focus on butcher shops, fresh pasta and seafood."
Kahan tried local dishes, talked shop with the chefs, and sampled olive oils. He came to the simple flavors he wanted Nico Osteria's menu to highlight in local eateries then visited the massive, winch-driven fishing machines, called trabuccos that dip nets into the bright blue Adriatic waters and a fisherman offered him a fresher sort of meal.
"We had incredible raw fish, served simply with olive oil, salt and pepper from a trabucco," says Kahan."The simplicity of the raw fish is what drives the restaurant, and is evident in our seafood and fresh pastas."
Kahan's experience at the trabucco was so powerful that he named his house beer for the machine and allowed that moment to inform his cooking as he built his restaurant's new menu. The dishes he now offers are more complicated than fresh-from-the-sea Italian sashimi he enjoyed in Puglia, but not much. Nico Osteria traffics in pure flavors (salt-crusted fresh branzino, braised and breaded octopus) that highlight delicacy and richness of high-quality seafood. It's an Italian restaurant so there are ragus, but fish get first billing – for once.