About as homespun and quaint as any Italian restaurant in the New World, Chicago Joe’s feels like a house in the country far from civilization. Its recipes are passed down through generations of the family that owns it. Service is warm, the digs are cozy with Christmas lights illuminating the dining room. It is said that it was a mafia hang-out back in the 1980s. These days it is mostly local families eating giant bowls of pasta: a refreshing change from the impersonal cacaphony of the city around it.
Cuisine is a 1975 vision of Chicago-style Italian food: light on the garlic, with lots of bread crumbs. Signature dishes and specials feature snails and lobster, both at fairly reasonable prices. House wines come poured from jug to carafe. To begin, salad is a basic salad bar blend; but soup is much better: a hearty white bean pasta e fagioli heavily seasoned with Parmesan (perhaps a stock made with boiled rinds). It is not a pretty bowl of food, but it’s delicious. And it goes well with the soft torpedo roll served as bread.
Spaghetti and meatballs is made with sauce that is bright and tomato forward with some herbs and not much garlic. It is a time-tested balance that makes places like this worth preserving and celebrating. The dense meatballs taste more of meat than filler.
Hot shrimp, a house specialty, comes out sizzling in a pool of oil, oregano, red chili, and salty bread crumbs. Again, not a pretty plate. (Is it dark in here so customers won’t notice the food’s disheveled rusticity?) Call us gluttonous (or glutenous): we like mopping up the oily toasted bread grits with puffs of the soft torpedo loaf.