I recently formulated a novel thesis—as yet unpublished by either the Journal of Applied Psychology or the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science—that suggests the mood of the country can best be gauged by the waxing or waning popularity of chicken parmesan platters at local restaurants.
I plan on calling it the Red Sauce Theorem. When things are looking good— booming stock market, low unemployment, a dearth of foreign entanglements—diners and restaurateurs stiff-arm the red-sauce Italian American staples for Old World Italian esoterica, like tripe Bolognese and porchetta di testa.
When things turn more sanguine—say, in the wake of a global pandemic—there’s an immediate run on parmesans, piccatas, and lasagnas. It happened just last year, when a slew of new Italian spots opened in downtown Chicago and proceeded to hawk high-end takes on Italian comfort food, from $60 bone-in veal chop parmesan to scamorza-stuffed arancini with ’nduja aioli.
At Za Za’s Trattoria in Clarendon Hills, owner Tony Donati can’t help but chuckle at the sheer brazenness of it all. Charge $60 for veal parm? Forgeddaboutit. That’s not exactly Tony’s style. “Look, we keep things very simple here,” says Donati. “My grandfather was a chef. My wife is a wonderful cook. We pay extra to buy the best tomatoes and meat and seafood we can. Our fish is fresh, never frozen. We make our own sauces, some using family recipes. I’m seeing all these new cuts of meat and fancy dishes out there, but as far as I’m concerned a bone-in filet is nothing more than a way to charge someone an extra 25 bucks for a filet.”
Tony will stick to his rustic classics, thank you very much. The kind of dishes that make you want to hum Sinatra and Dean Martin tunes after every bite. Take his silver-platter meatball appetizer, for instance. Two giant meatballs—the size of Vidalia onions—are moated by a pool of red sauce. Wonderful stuff. The meatballs are made from ground beef, browned pork, plus a little ground sausage, bound with a classic blend of breadcrumbs and Romano cheese. We couldn’t get enough of the slightly sweet sauce, so much so that we requested a second bread basket to sop up every last drop of the stuff.
Turns out the locals can’t get enough of Donati’s restaurant either. He’s been running Za Za’s in Clarendon Hills for over 20 years. His recipe book is 400 to 500 entries deep, but over the years, he has realized the value of sticking to his best sellers. Tony is a good listener. When enough people rave about a particular dish, he casts it in stone on his menu. “If someone comes back to us because they really like a particular dish,” he says, “how does it help us to have them sit down and see it’s no longer here?”
When we return, we’ll certainly have our list of favorites. Za Za’s extra-thin beef carpaccio comes overloaded with enough toppings to rival any South Side “kitchen-sink” pizza. The keys to Za Za’s carpaccio? No. 1: The use of oversized capers, which amplify the dish’s signature brininess. And No. 2: slivers of avocado that imbue it with color while providing it a creamy counterbalance to all the acidity.
Given that some of Tony’s family hails from Northern Italy, it’s not surprising that the scallops Toscano is a white-wine masterpiece. We loved the lilt of licorice and allium-like sweetness created by melting down leeks and fennel. It’s a must-order dish, as is Nana’s gravy, an old-school Sunday supper classic made the right way, using pork neck bones. There’s not much meat on those bones, but what you do receive is as melt-away tender and flavorful as roasted bone marrow.
In terms of entrees, we recommend two Northern specialties: the pork tenderloin saltimbocca topped with prosciutto and mozzarella, which is buoyed by a semi-sweet brandy sauce. In terms of seafood, you can’t go wrong with one of the house’s semi-regular specials, the Dover sole, which is accompanied by a balsamic-white wine glaze.
How about the chicken parm? Yes, Za Za’s has its own dandy little version—no imported panko breadcrumbs nor funky bone-in option needed. It costs a fraction of what you’ll pay downtown and comes with an extra side of linguine at no extra charge. We’d give you a grade, but we needed to leave room for Za Za’s tiramisu, which proved to be as light as fresh-whipped Chantilly cream. And besides, why should I spend any extra time perfecting my second red sauce theorem, when I can eat the real stuff at Tony’s place instead? Zaza’s Italian Trattoria and Pasteria is located at 441 Ogden Avenue in Clarendon Hills.
Za Za’s regularly runs by-the-glass specials from its wine list, often slashing prices on rosés and Napa blends, but its cocktail list is pretty standard fare, albeit with the inclusion of a couple sweeter tipples, like the house’s banana split martini.
For more information, call 630-920-0500 or visit zazasclarendonhills.com.