Chef Profile: Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia
In Chicago, where the streets are lined with countless Italian dining options, being the chef of the only four-star Italian restaurant is nothing to scoff about. And Tony Mantuano knows it.
Focused on serving authentic Italian cuisine and offering casual, welcoming hospitality, Mantuano puts Spiaggia in a class of its own. Mantuano did not set out to achieve culinary greatness.
Growing up Italian in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Mantuano's family was all about food. His grandparents owned an Italian grocery, and as a result Mantuano spent a lot of time soaking up the importance and culture of food.
Realizing he needed to make ends meet after studying music in college, Mantuano took a job in a restaurant. He's been cooking ever since.
After several years in cooking, Mantuano drew the interest of a restaurant owner in Chicago. He moved in 1982 for a job at (now extinct) Pronto restaurant.
Before rolling up his sleeves in the Spiaggia kitchen, Mantuano and his wife spent a year in Italy, courtesy of the restaurant's owner Larry Levy. While there, Mantuano studied authentic Italian cuisine and put in time at 3-star Michelin Dal Pescatore as well as renowned Da Romano.
After the opening of Spiaggia in 1984, Mantuano quickly became one of Chicago's most acclaimed Italian chefs. Today, the kitchen at Spiaggia churns out simple dishes that focus on three or four terrific ingredients.
"People try to add more ingredients to make them seem like they are worth more," he says. "It becomes muddled tasting."
Spiaggia is known for its pasta, which is made on site every day. One of Mantuano's favorites, the veal agnolotti, consists of handcrafted veal-filled pasta with fennel pollen and crispy veal breast.
In addition, the menu's expansive offerings of meat and fish center on the kitchen's wood burning oven, which brings a smoky flavor to the food. The seafood for Mantuano's creations is imported fresh from Italy, including the poached Mediterranean sea bass with braised fennel and the roasted turbot with sunchoke puree, mushrooms and a veal reduction.
Along with the high quality of the food, Mantuano believes that both the service and location of Spiaggia, on the Magnificent Mile overlooking the lake, contribute to its four-star ranking.
"It's a stunning place to be," Mantuano says. "Even if you're a long time Chicagoan, when you dine here you are jilted."
Mantuano also heads up Café Spiaggia, the more casual neighborhood restaurant located in the same building. As Mantuano describes it, "The dining room [at Spiaggia] is like driving a Ferrari, the dining room at the café is driving a Fiat. Both are fun to drive, they are just different experiences."
Mantuano notes that even though Spiaggia is a four-star restaurant, the service is never stuffy and no guests ever feel out of place. "Hospitality is something Italians have perfected over the years," he says. "Even in a four-star restaurant, we make you feel welcome."
Tony Mantuano is the James Beard 2005 Best Chef: Midwest winner and was nominated in 2002, 2003 and 2004. His Spiaggia cookbook was also nominated as a top cookbook by the James Beard Foundation in 2004.
◊ December 2007
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