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Crazy Chef' works modern magic in Italian dining

Written by Mike Siroky. Posted in Uncategorized

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Published on January 11, 2011 with No Comments

by Mike Siroky

What does Coco Pazzo mean in Italian?
Itís slang for “crazy chef.”
But what it means to Chicagoland diners is traditional Tuscany style Italian food with a 21st century flair.
Itís all the brainchild of Jack Weiss, a true renaissance man.
Weiss opened the doors of Coco Pazzo in the River North area of Chicago in 1992. He needed to educate Midwesterners about the first Chicago restaurant to focus solely on the Tuscan region of Italy.
From bar stools to indoor pools, Tuscan style embraces nature and is reflected in its decorations.
Well-worn, even crumbling stone walls, delicate wrought iron, views of sun-washed hillsides and rustic stone farmhouses, marble floors and simple yet serviceable sturdy hardwood furniture are emblematic of the Tsucan style. It is not worn out, but neither it is glitzy or dazzlingly shiny.
It brings customers to a sense of peace and a simpler way of life. To step into such a restaurant is an escape, if only for an evening, from an urban rumble.
You are among friends, no reason to put on airs.
In Italy, the people who moved to the hills of central Italy wanted, even then, to get back to basics.
Using sturdy materials that stand the test of time, the look of Tuscan style decorating is rustic, warm and inviting.
The natural materials found in the Tuscany area of Italy uses sandstone or limestone, available in many hues. Marble is in abundance and is used for decorative details, flooring, arches and pillars.
Terracotta roof tiles are the norm in Tuscany. Deep-set windows framed by sandstone are often protected with rustic wooden shutters.
Outdoor spaces are important, a marriage with nature. A building must include a patio, loggia or portico. Walls built of sandstone bricks recall the early need as a defensive perimeter.
Water is a basic decoration as well as a tribute to necessity, found in the central courtyard surrounded by wildly growing greenery. Marble statues watch over everyone.
Walkways, driveways and garden paths are set with stone or brick. Nature takes its course and grass grows up between the stones.
Weis brought these design elements to Coco Pazzo.
And that is even before the first dish is served. That has become the domain of partner and Chef Chris Macchia only the second, and the youngest chef and partner Coco Pazzo has ever had.
ìChris is an amazingly talented chef. His passion and creativity has taken Tuscan cuisine to a new place ñ to another level,î Weiss said.
The cooking style Tuscan-style cooking features all the elements of the flavorful and healthful Mediterranean diet. The ingredients are simple ñ olive oil, bread, fresh produce ñ but it is the combination that sells.
In the breads, there are garlic and parmesan flavors as well as the traditional substantial Italian style.
At the base, though, is taste, brought about most likely by soffritto, which means “under-fried” in Italian. Soffritto is made by lightly frying minced vegetables in olive oil. The soffritto goes into sauces, soups and other recipes.
Tuscan-style enjoins a medley of vegetables ñ artichokes, asparagus, green beans, fava beans, peas and all types of greens, including swiss chard, spinach and escarole. Peaches and pears are popular fruits.
The Tuscan meat is most used is bistecca alla fiorentina, a large grilled porterhouse. Game meats, including wild boar, duck and rabbit are also important to Tuscan-style cooking and reflective of the country-style ingredients started in small town throughout Italy.
Wild porcini mushrooms and truffles add an expected touch to Tuscan dishes. The porcini is served raw, grilled, sauteed in olive oil and garlic. Truffles are added to pasta dishes or shaved over eggs or steak.
Macchia has brought a modern edge to the traditions. He uses fresh whenever possible, from fish through vegetables. In season, that means Midwest or Chicagoland suppliers. In cold weather, he gets more creative and more finicky with his choices of ingredients from vendors.
Then there are the trips.
Each year, Weis and Macchia actually go to Italy and visit the small towns, sampling food and acquiring a trick here, an added zest there.
Macchiaís menu additions include house-cured and smoked fish and meats, labor-intensive pastas such as orecctiette as well as pizza baked in a stone oven.
The final tick towards a special ambiance is the fact that Weis is a patron of the arts, which was reflected when the Lyric Opera singers came to an anniversary celebration.
Tell the person waiting on you that you are on the way to a Chicago show, they will make sure you are served and out the door in plenty of time.
By closing in on two decades of success, Coco Pazzo has beaten the odds, which say a six-month run is a good one for any startup.
Crazy Chef? Everyone should be so crazy when it comes to a dining experience.
For more information about Coco Pazzo or to view their menu, visit www.cocopazzochicago.com.

300 West Hubbard Street
Chicago
(312) 836-0900 (for reservations)

Coco Pazzo CafÈ
636 N ST. CLAIR ST
CHICAGO
(312) 664-2777 (for reservations)

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About Mike Siroky

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All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the above excellent column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Chronicle. Mike Siroky is a writer and editor. He is a native of Northwest Indiana. He has worked in media from coast to coast. To contact Mike, email mikel@the chronicleNWI.com

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