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Cafe Bionda: A Hot New Blond in the South Loop

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jul 14, 2006 3:15PM

2006_07_biondaprime.jpgThe Rosebud restaurants will forever be associated with Alex Dana. However, a captain is only as good as his lieutenants, and Dana had a very good one in Joe Farina, his longtime former corporate chef. Under Farina’s helm, the Rosebud restaurants maintained a high quality control across the board, as Dana expanded his franchises with alarming frequency and swift, surgical precision, culminating in their brief partnering in Ballo, their hip twist on northern Italian cooking.

Around the same time that Farina left Rosebud, a nondescript Italian eatery was scraping by among all the monotonous town home construction in the South Loop. Here’s where Farina enters the picture, bringing his experience at - and name recognition from – Rosebud to energize the little bistro. The restaurant, now re-christened Café Bionda, has been doing some great business in the face of hit-or-miss reviews. The Reader’s David Hammond wrote that it “looks like a blond Mia Francesca clone” (“bionda” is Italian for “blond woman”), while Metromix had “no complaints about the food”. But it was this review from neighborhood acquaintances, the B News, that made Chicagoist place visiting Café Bionda on high priority. If a member of the Farnese gave it high marks, we knew that everything was copacetic. We finally made it there, and are happy to report that Café Bionda ranks with Koda and a late winter dinner at May Street Café as one of our best dining experiences of the year. We have our extensive review after the jump.

With Café Bionda, Farina doesn’t stray too far from the template he learned and implemented at Rosebud. Expect wonderful dishes bursting with flavor and cooked to perfection, served by a waitstaff that’s been expertly trained, in a comfortable dining atmosphere that offers white cloth elegance without the accompanying sticker shock. Hammond’s “blond Mia Francesca” comment is a reference to Café Bionda’s rustic Tuscan color scheme, which matches burgundy and mustard tones with dark, hardwood accents. This is a successful attempt to make the restaurant stand out from the cookie cutter town home complex in which it’s housed. The entrees are moderately sized. There’s no need to undo your belt after you’ve eaten here.

2006_07_biondacheese.jpgCafé Bionda’s wine list is dominated by Italian varietals served by the glass or bottle, with a few California wines added. In a nice touch, fuller bodied, younger wines are decanted into personal-sized carafes, in order to soften the tannins. They also have an extensive cocktail list. Many of their creations use fresh squeezed juices prepared by a Zummo machine (anyone who’s been to Orange knows of the machines we’re talking about). Bottled beers include both Peroni and Birra Moretti; we opted for the latter, which paired well with both our appetizer and entrees.

From the meat and cheese antipasti menu, we ordered some aged provolone ($3) and bufala mozzarella ($4), which we generously spread across some Italian bread. The provolone had a crumbly texture, the aging reduced its sharpness, and it was complemented by the addition of basil. The mozzarella was perfect in texture, sweetness, and lightness. It spread like butter on the bread.

2006_07_biondapasta.jpgFor our entrée, we ordered the pasta de Genovese ($12). This dish was prepared with spicy, crumbled Italian sausage, tomato, and basil. Chicagoist orders pasta arrabiata whenever we can, and this dish made for a wonderful alternative. Served in a quaint ceramic bowl, it had a spice that built in intensity with each bite, yet never became unbearable. We finished our meal with a cappuccino digestif. Brewed from medium-bodied Lavazza espresso, our cappuccino had an amazing foam head topper that maintained its lacing, even after we tried to mix it into the espresso.

Café Bionda offers alfresco seating, which was completely occupied during our visit. Farina also has plans to open a raw bar, Bionda Reef, sometime in late summer or early fall. They currently offer a limited raw bar menu, at $2-3 a piece.

The far South Loop and Chinatown area is rapidly acquiring some destination restaurants, like Mulan and Cuatro. Café Bionda offers shirt-and-tie quality, without customers feeling the need to dress to the nines. It’s a great find, and a good excuse to travel out south for an evening. Café Bionda is located at 1924 S. State Street. They’re open 11 a.m. – 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 4 p.m. – 10 p.m. Sundays. They accept reservations; to make one, call (312) 326-9800.