Wicker Park's Animale is a new fast-casual restaurant from Aldo Zaninotto, whose much fancier Osteria Langhe offers higher-end Italian dishes that come in around $18 for apps and $30 for entrées. It isn't like that at Animale, but neither is Animale anything like Oak Park's fast-casual places, such as Five Guys and Chipotle, both of which we like but both of which are strictly counter-service with much less chef-y options.
At Animale, there's an actual chef in the kitchen – Cameron Grant – and what he's serving up is way more interesting, and sometimes riskier, than what you'd find at your standard fast-casual spot.
In 2009, we were very impressed that Purple Pig on Michigan Avenue starting offering selections from the "fifth quarter," the offal – liver, tails and other animal parts – that would have been unthinkable for most restaurants to have served even a few years before…least of all to shopping bag ladies who lunch on the Mag Mile.
The Zaninotto/Grant team, of course, is offering safe choices like burgers and an arugula salad, but they're also pushing the boundaries just a little with rabbit livers, sweet breads…and tripe.
I am not a fan of tripe. I've had it maybe a dozen times, and I gotta say…I have not enjoyed it much. I will usually eat a bite or two, and with enough wine (ideally a fizzy Lambrusco), I will get through it. The trippa at Animale ($11/half-order) turned me around on the topic of tripe; it's served with pancetta, a jalapeno salsa verde, egg up and farinata (a crepe-like pancake of chickpea flour). Of this trippa, I had seconds. The heat of the salsa verde made a huge difference, and it was much, much spicier than one would ever expect to find in Italy: Italians are actually somewhat averse to chili heat; our Chicago palates – thanks perhaps to our sizeable Mexican population and their spectacularly chili-forward foods – are accustomed to high levels of capsaicin.
The rabbit livers ($11) were very delicate and tasty, and served with a small salad of greens and colorful grape tomatoes, these organs make for a beautifully composed dish. The livers browned (the best way to serve this organ), plump and rich, almost like foie gras lobes and served on toast with mushrooms and thyme.
The plin ($15/half-order) are lovely little packets of La Tur (an Italian cheese with slight blue-cheese-type funk), amped up with housemade pancetta; the arancini, fried risotto balls, are stuffed with gorgonzola and served with a creamy basil sauce ($9), considerably elevating this humble Sicilian street food in much the way Animale elevates the concept of fast-casual dining. Both these dishes are also kid-friendly, though the La Tur filling in the plin may push some younger palates, which could be a good thing. We think it's best to provide opportunities for the young to try new things, if only just once, and hey, I thought I didn't like tripe until I had it at Animale.
Long and relatively narrow, Animale has a somewhat streamlined design, befitting a fast-casual spot, with lots of wood and an open kitchen behind a wall of glass; floor to ceiling windows provide a sense of airiness. Despite all the hard surfaces, it was very easy to talk (and hear!) across the table. There's a lot of room in front of the counter to accommodate strollers.
"What surprised me about opening in this neighborhood," Zaninotto told us, "is that there are kids everywhere. So now we have a children's menu." For six bucks, your child can have pappardelle pasta with butter and parmesan (what kid does not love pasta and butter/cheese?), a sandwich of grilled cheese (fontina/parmesan), burger or just a cup of raspberries. There are many options for kids.
So, at Animale, you can have some common or more unusual foods, and here's an added bonus: although this restaurant has had its liquor license approved, it hasn't yet received the final green light to start serving beer and wine, so for now you can BYOB, making this a high-value culinary adventure.
One pro-tip: if you're in a group and plan to share, order items two or so at one time if you want to avoid having everything come at once. This is, after all, a "fast" casual place, and people usually seem to get in and get out rather quickly. Still, we lingered over dinner for almost two hours, with no pressure from servers. Incidentally, the servers are also kitchen staff who rotate between front- and back-of-the-house positions, which means that when you ask one of these servers about a dish, they'll know all about it because they've likely prepared it themselves.
Animale is located at the foot of the Blue Line, Western stop, about 40 minutes from Oak Park. It's way, way worth the trip. You should go. Now. Really. Go.
1904 N. Western
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