Worth the Trip: Gioco

We were delighted with the prosciutto and arugula pizza, the garganelli and the branzino.

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By David Hammond

Gioco is a restaurant on the increasingly trendy near south side of Chicago,  and it’s been at that same location over 14 years, long before gentrification in this area began.

Gioco is owned by restaurateur Jerry Kleiner, who also pioneered the wow-it’s-now Randolph restaurant district with his Vivo and Marche, as well as several other restaurants in Chicagoland, many marked by his distinctive design style (lots of dramatic reds and blacks, huge fabric chandeliers, black and white photos).

Parts of Gioco have been around much longer than any living person – there’s a speakeasy from the Capone era in back, and sections of that space date back to 1875. The bar/dining area feels heavy with Chicago history.

Dining at Gioco recently, we were delighted with the prosciutto and arugula pizza. I’ve had pie like this in Italy, and I love the culinary custom of putting the fresh, slightly bitter leaves over rich meat and cheese. The uncooked arugula adds a slight crispness and satisfyingly herbal flavor.

Garganelli is a pasta with salty speck (ham), sweet peas, earthy mushrooms, and creamy parm sauce, a beautiful combination of flavors that are, again, simple yet fully delectable.  I usually don’t order pasta in restaurants because I figure I can make the stuff at home; I have never made anything at home that approaches the perfection of this dish.

We split a whole branzino, a type of bass that’s been turning up on Italian menus at many American restaurants over the past few years. Topped with capers, garlic, lemon, olive oil and herbs, there was enough flavor in this fish to stand up to a Sangiovese. I found myself doing what I rarely do with fish: gobbling up big swaths of skin, caramelized from the fire and full of seasonings that made this usually throw-away part deliciously precious.

Gioco will split items like the pasta and the fish without an extra plating charge, which is mighty decent of them. Many restaurants either explicitly forbid sharing or ding you with an obnoxious plate charge (usually just a few bucks, but an annoyance because diners rightly feel nickel-and-dimed).

Gioco is closer to Oak Park than you might think: get on the Green Line at Harlem, Ridgeland or Austin and get off about 25 minutes later at Roosevelt Road. Walk about two blocks and you’re there. It’s worth the trip.


1312 S. Wabash


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Resident from Oak Park   

Posted: July 13th, 2011 8:40 AM

I really enjoy your blog. I wish it was easier to access more quickly from the WJ homepage. Very well written and interesting!

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