Ombra (Chicago): Two restaurant vets introduce rustic, casual Venetian eats at their new Andersonville venture

With small-plates eats and a casual vibe, Ombra emulates the wine bars of  Italy’s northeastern Tre Venezie region.  Photo by Alex Janowski

Don’t expect any sibling rivalry between Andersonville favorite Anteprima and its new sister restaurant, Ombra, down the block.

Although both eateries focus on fresh, seasonal and authentic Italian cuisine, owners Marty Fosse and Tim Rasmussen created a completely new concept for Ombra, which opened last month.

While Anteprima promotes a more conventional dining style (starters, pastas, main courses and sides) and presents dishes from around The Boot, Ombra takes a more laid-back approach to the foods of Italy’s northeastern Tre Venezie region.

Owners Marty Fosse and Tim Rasmussen wanted Ombra to have a totally different concept than Anteprima, their popular  — but more traditional  — Andersonville Italian eatery.  Photo by Alex Janowski

“You can stay as long as you like, or you can get out of here in 10 minutes,” says Fosse of Ombra’s happy-go-lucky vibe.

Fosse has a longtime fascination with Tre Venezie, which includes the beloved city of Venice.

“Venice was a major trade route.  There are things you find in Venetian cuisine that you don’t find in other places.”

So Fosse and his team built an always-changing menu that shows off the region’s tasty, traditional dishes.  Options fall into 11 categories:  cicchetti (small snacks and side dishes);  insalate, panini, tramezzini (Venetian tea sandwiches); bruschette; salumi; fritti; crudi; piatti unici (larger plates); formaggi and desserts.

Although the menu is arranged sequentially, Fosse says diners should feel comfortable selecting items in any manner they like.

“If you ask me, there is no order.  The format is that there isn’t one,” Fosse says.  And, “When the food is ready, the food comes out.”

Faced with the menu’s many options and an admitted need for order and control, I suggested to our group that we follow the menu as laid out.  And this worked perfectly for our group of four — Brewmaster Josh, Carey, The Husband and me.

The menu offers an array of colorful cicchetti, or small snacks and side dishes. Photo by Alex Janowski

On hand to guide us was Venetian-born Manuel, whose big, fun, lively personality reminded us all of a young version of Italian actor-comedian Roberto Benigni.  (Although Manuel thankfully refrained from walking across our booth.)

Following Manuel’s suggestion, we kicked off our cicchetti exploration with baccalà mantecato ($6), a staple of Venetian cuisine.

“You never go anywhere in Venice without seeing this dish,” Fosse says.

Ombra’s take on this salty, creamy codfish spread had a pleasant lemony taste and a hummus-like texture — it was served with cold, spicy polenta slabs.

Fishy-fish lovers, Brewmaster Josh and Carey chose classic pesce in saor ($6).  Here, marinated mackerel was accompanied by a sweet-and-sour mix of sautéed onions, plump golden raisins and pine nuts.  Under Manuel’s watchful eye, bagna cauda ($8) also found its way to our table.  The deconstructed salad was served with a warm anchovy-laden Caesar-style dip and fresh fennel, cauliflower and endive dippers.  And unable to lay off those anchovies — a Venetian delicacy — the Brewmaster and his wife opted for the bread crumb-topped stuffed onion ($5) filled with pancetta and, yes, anchovies.

Goat cheese truffles rolled in tri-flavored powders offer simple but satisfying bites.  Photo by Alex Janowski

Not to say that I didn’t enjoy these selections, but my personal fave among the cicchetti we sampled — and we made a mere dent in the list — were mouthwatering goat cheese truffles ($7).  The trio of milky balls were rolled in three uniquely flavored powders — licorice-y fennel, sweet amaretto and spicy chile.

Harboring an irrational fear of mayonnaise, The Husband passed on our pick from the tramezzini ($5) — tartufato.  This turned out well for me, as I took an extra helping of these crustless, truffle oil-laced egg salad canapés.

Tramezzini are crustless tea sandwiches commonly found in Venetian bars.  Photo courtesy of Ombra

We selected two options from the bruschette ($3 each) section.  Appreciated by all, our Italian bread slices came topped with zucca (a layering of sweet and gooey butternut squash, extra-crispy prosciutto, parmigiano, and balsamic), as well as a simple mix of briny olives, sweet roasted red peppers and herbed goat cheese.

Once again, we turned to Manuel when we came to the salumi offerings.  He astutely advised us to try finocchiona ($8), a chewy, fennel-flavored sausage.

Perhaps the biggest hit — once again recommended by Manuel — came from the fritti, or fried, section.  Who wouldn’t love arancini neri ($7), breaded balls of sticky squid ink rice served with an Italian tomato dipping sauce?  We did.

Our group skipped over crudi, passing on such options as fresh oysters ($2.50 each) and tuna tartare ($8,) and moved on to the piatti unici.

We sampled off-the-bone Valpolicella wine-braised duck leg ($13) and cheesy, oozy polenta pasticciata ($10), which literally translates to “messy polenta.”  Adding to the dish’s comforting richness was a welcome taste of savory veal stock.

Ombra’s dessert offerings include chocolate “salame.” Photo by Alex Janowski

Almost too full for dessert, we were too intrigued by the chocolate salame ($6) to pass it up.  Although the treat looked like the real deal, fortunately, the slices of chocolate-orange “cookie dough” tasted nothing like it.

Once again, Manuel did us right.

5308 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60640

Ombra on Urbanspoon

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