Although more than 100 black-and-white photographs from– snapshots of Dean and Frank in their prime to rediscover some connection with their prime to the cast of The Untouchables posing heroically in downtown Chicago– grace the walls of ZaZa’s Tavola Italiana in Lake Barrington, co-owner Daryl Voska has his favorites.
He’s been carefully curating this collec- tion of photos since 2002, when he realized Lake Barrington was lacking a place that bartered in serious tomato sauce. His aim was to capture the look, feel, sound, and gargantuan portion sizes of a 1950s-style Italian-American ristorante. But he also wanted to launch a place that worked in more subliminal ways by unlocking long buried memories.
Who doesn’t harbor fond memories of settling into an Italian restaurant where there’s butcher’s paper on the table, a few romantic tunes from the 1950s on the soundtrack, and portions so big you’d swear you stumbled into a wedding reception be- ing thrown by the Corleone family?
Which is why on some nights, Voska will guide a regular or an inquisitive newcomer to a section of photos that means more to him than all the others. They’re shots, not of glamorous movie stars or classic Chicago locales but rather pictures from his own family album as well as those snapped by his co-owners, Massimo Lobue and his father, Phillipo Lobue. He’ll point to those photos, tell a story or two and say, with obvious pride, “This right here is what ZaZa’s Tavola Italiana is all about.”
In doing so, he hopes he’s inviting guests to rediscover some connection with their own past during the few hours they spend in his dining room.
One thing is for certain, Voska’s soell certainly worked on us, especially when it came to our appetizers. The menu itself pulls from all over Italy—the pastas range from a spicy Abruzzese rigatoni to tagliatelle Bolognese and milkier truffle cream sourced from northern Italy. But ZaZa’s giant baked Sicilian artichoke—stuffed to the proverbial gills with a cheesy breadcrumb paste that tastes like ground garlic bread—instantly transported us back to our youth. On the plate, it’s a beauty, moated by hot balsamic-lemon gravy that’s so thick you’d swear they barrel aged it in the back.
You have to eat it with your hands, peeling off leaves and scraping off slivers artichoke meats and the stuffing with your front teeth. As a someone once said, it’s the only dish that actually prevents Italians from talking with their hands. Only in Za- Za’s version the rich lemon-vinegar flavor offers extra intrigue, as if someone decided to spike it with a spoon of piccata sauce.
We were equally impressed with the scallops Toscano, which fry up one of the great underutilized ingredients of our time—thin ribbons of leeks—into a delicious crispy salad mixed that’s folded in with bits of fennel. The result is almost Sambucca-like, and then soaked up by sizable scallops.
Although picking a pasta from ZaZa’s 10 vastly different selection of offerings can be daunting, it’s impossible to go wrong with the fresh cavatelli and polpette, which is not your typical spaghetti and meatballs platter. The pasta is thick and eggy with the bite and flavor of gnocchi. They’re substantial enough to stand up to the house’s fabulous veal meatballs, which are as white as fresh-ground Parmesan and ooze with clear juices. The sauce itself has undercurrents of sweetness—soft enough not to overpower the milder flavors of the veal.
You can also enjoy the cavatelli by ordering the braci- ole, a thinly pounded slices of beef that are pounded thin, smeared with a pesto-like herb paste and then rolled up into the shape of a mini football. It’s tender yet crispy enough to stay rolled up, so that you can enjoy the layers of flavor in every bite. The only entrée that provides more value may be the house’s halibut special with lemony risotto. It comes with two filets of lightly battered halibut in a lobster sauce that tastes like a thinned bisque. The portion is twice as big as what most other restaurants serve at a fraction of the price.
And we would be remiss if we didn’t mention that ZaZa’s offers one of the best tiramisu you’re likely to
find anywhere, which took me back to the exuberance I once felt when dipping into the tiramisu my great Aunt Tina used to trot out on special occasions. It’s an absolute must.
If you’re curious as to what exactly ZaZa’s means, Voska says it means everything and nothing. It’s up to you to decipher. Over the years, customers have praised him for naming his spot after everything from Zaza, an old movie starring Claudette Colbert to the Joey Zasa character from The Godfather III. Which is just fine with Voska, as it’s proof that everyone views—and lays claim—to his restau- rant in their own way.
Although we recommend a nice glass of wine with the savory fare at ZaZa’s, consider extending the evening with an aperitif or a cocktail for dessert.
The leader on ZaZa’s cocktail list may seem to be an unusual choice, a cucumber meets gin cocktail with lemon juice and elderflower liquor. Seems like a spa drink but works well as a light palate-cleansing start to the evening.
Although this sweet mix of triple sec, apple vodka, and lime juice may clash with the red sauce fare, we’ve found that ordering it as a liquid dessert has its perks, especially in the heat of the summer.
ZaZa’s Tavola Italiana is located at 5047 Shoreline Road in Lake Barrington, 847-381-1333, zazaslb.com.