Rustic Italian at Balena – Lincoln Park, Chicago

Balena Dining Room

From the moment we walked in Balena it was perfect. The high ceiling with wood beams and big round lights give Balena an open and warm feel. Decor elements like the custom leather bar, wood block floor, old-timey cabinets, cutting board style tables, red leather folding chairs and Italian tile in greens blues and cream give Balena a rustic Italian feel.

My favorite design element was the fragments of neon lights covering the north wall of the main dining room. Bright yellow neon over faint writing against the cream-colored wall. Wondering what the story was behind it I asked the hostess and she let me know it spelled out “Fra Mani” meaning between the hands (more or less). This was reference to the homemade pasta and to give a retro Italian movie theater feel to the restaurant.

Check out my bite-sized, one-minute episode to get a peek inside!

Balena Fra Mani NeonBalena Table

The attention to detail extends to the menu where Chef Chris Pandel (named Chef of the Year in the 2012 Eater Awards) offers a bread program, bitters mixology and homemade pasta.

Bitters mixolgy you say? “…exploration of amaro and the bitters from countries surrounding Italy as the basis of our mixology.” The drinks are numbered one through ten based on the level of bitter. My Manlino no3 (Aperol, Bombay, fresh sour, soda) was delicious and refreshing.

Balena Manlino no3

Our server Garren provided excellent service, always there when we needed her but never hovering. With only two people we could not order everything we wanted so she helped us narrow it down. She suggested a wine to accompany the lamb pappardelle and I. Fell.In.Love.  I enjoy wine but I rarely “love” it and so when I mentioned it to Garren she wrote the name down for me. She also told me about an app called Delectable that tells you where you can buy the wine. All you have to do is take a picture of the label and they will  let you know where you can buy it. My new love is a fruit forward Fratelli Revello Barbera d’Alba 2012 and available online.

The cured meat plate was three salami’s with distinct flavors and served with some that famous bread program bread. The meat-eater in the party liked the salami but was really impressed with the bread and subsequently ate it all before I got to try it. That’s saying something because he usually leaves the bread and focuses on the meat.

Balena Cured Meat

Cured Meat: Gin & Juice with Orange, Stagberry & Blueberry, Red Wine & Garlic

I ordered the Tuscan KaleCaesar Salad” with tonnato, sardines, and croutons. I called this the “Never Ending Kale Salad” because although I kept eating and eating it appeared I didn’t make a dent. This is a very well done take on Caesar salad with lemon tang in the dressing, real chunks of sardines and crispy croutons. Great dish to share.

Balena Tuscan Kale Caesar

My favorite dish of the night: Pappardelle, Lamb Sugo, Castelveltrano, Orange, Pecorino di Fossa. The dish was surprisingly light and the star was the pasta itself. The pappardelle was cooked al dente and absorbed the flavors beautifully.  I’m having a moment with Castelveltrano olives so this just added to my enjoyment of the dish.

Balena Pappardelle

The Canestri, Pork Ragu and Porcini mushrooms was a heartier dish given the richness of the ragu and mushrooms. It’s the perfect winter pasta.

Balena Canestri Pork Ragu

Making room for dessert we had the Vanilla Gelato Sundae , Chocolate Chip Cookie, Malt Chocolate Sauce, “Toasted Milk”. No picture of this but you can see this delicious dessert in my video.

My next trip here will include at least one of their pizzas! Balena is across from Steppenwolf Theater and next to The Royal George Theater  so they are great for pre theater dining.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s