We Ask, They Answer: Q&A with Sapori Trattoria owner/chef Tony Barbanente
By Trent Modglin
When you’ve lived in Chicago as long as I have, revisiting an old favorite restaurant can sometimes be as exciting as getting that early reservation at the new hotspot everyone is talking about. That’s what happened recently when I had dinner at Sapori Trattoria in Lincoln Park. It’s always been one of my go-to Italian spots in the city (as well as a popular destination when my wife and I first started dating many years ago).
I tracked down a familiar face — chef/owner Tony Barbanente — to chat with him about a love of cooking and life. Sapori Trattoria is located at 2701 N. Halsted. www.SaporiTrattoria.net
Q: Tell me a little about your background in the kitchen. How did you get started?
A: Well, I had a unique situation as a child, where my father spent most of his time in Italy and my mother would take a postage stamp, stick in on my head, and send me for three or four months to Italy. And I did that for most of my childhood. I had an uncle in Italy who owned a restaurant, and I would spend a lot of time with the chefs there. My other uncle owned a fishing boat, and my grandfather was a farmer, so I would spend the rest of my time on his farm. It was the best of all worlds, really, and I was able to put all that together and one day turn it into a passion for Italian living and for food.
“A lot of times the staff comes to me and asks to try something, and we’ll go in the kitchen and try to make it happen because it needs to be a collaborative effort.”
Q: How much fun do you have with constantly tweaking the menu?
A: The wonder of having a restaurant and being the owner/chef is kind of like being the quarterback of the football team. Ricardo the GM and I have been doing this for 16 years, and we feel like we’ve never worked a day in our lives. It’s kind of like playing catch, throwing the ball back and forth. We’re dealing with serious things, but we’re having a good time. We started off as the youngest people in the room, but we’re older now, mentoring people. A lot of people are still with us after all these years, and we have a lot of great, as we call them, alumni, who have spent eight, nine years with us and gone on to do great things
As far as the menu goes, there are a lot of things you can do with Italian food. But the end result is it has to be delicious, it has to be natural and tasty and visually appealing. There are no limits, but we try to have something out there that’s safe, and something that might be trendy right now. A lot of times the staff comes to me and asks to try something, and we’ll go in the kitchen and try to make it happen because it needs to be a collaborative effort. When everyone is involved, they take ownership. If they know they had a hand in it, they’ll have a hand in promoting it too. We’re really like one big, happy, dysfunctional family.
Q: Any menu items you’re offering now that pique your interest more than most?
A: It’s exciting as a chef. We’re taking a dish that’s from the medieval times: duck confit. And we’re doing it traditionally, taking fresh duck legs, salt curing them for two days, then covering them in duck fat and cooking them overnight at a very low temperature. Then we come back in the morning to put them in a jar, covering them in duck fat again before putting it over an open flame to crisp up the skin. And then we create a sauce with all the trimmings from the duck, cooked for a long time, and finish with a little rosemary, thyme and a hint of sage. We don’t overdo it with any of the flavors because we let the duck do the work, but it’s delightful.
When you are ordering that dish, you are getting something from medieval times but also one of the most modern and trendy dishes. Perfect for a late-winter, early spring dish.
The food that we cook, you’re never going to find a flavor that’s dominant and isolates itself. We take aim for the middle of the palate. We work for simple, traditional, comforting flavors.
“We’re not corporate. I hire real people, and real people make for comfortable, natural interactions. My servers have a natural charm for life that you can’t train.”
Q: The clientele always seems like a nice mix of new customers and neighborhood folks who’ve been coming here for a decade. You know a lot of people in this dining room.
A: The truth is, we are the neighborhood restaurant in Lincoln Park. We’ve had relationships of multiple generations, so it’s fun to watch the parents and now their kids are coming in on dates. Or the kids went off to college and now they’ve come back to work in the city and they’re coming here on a Friday night. … It’s like a big, ongoing party. There are so many connections, and it’s so much fun to watch people interact with each other.
My staff is so warm and friendly that it creates an environment where the customer feels so at home. … We’re not corporate. I hire real people, and real people make for comfortable, natural interactions. My servers have a natural charm for life that you can’t train. And the manager is passionate about wine and food and keeps me on my toes.
Q: What can people expect from a night out at Sapori Trattoria?
A: A night where you can be comfortable, be part of the scene in Lincoln Park, yet not have all the pretense of being near a downtown restaurant. Professional yet courteous and warm people taking care of you. The chefs are proud to make the dishes for you, exactly how you want it. And you’re gonna leave feeling appreciated and respected. … We feel grateful that you’ve dined with us, and our whole team respects that philosophy. It’s just great food in a cozy, quant, neighborhood environment.