Walking the Line

Matthew Hendrickson |
Food And Dining

"We try to honor the ways Italian food has changed over time. Our menu has classic dishes from regions all over Italy, but each has an interesting new twist …”

"Glowing spirits line the wall behind a long bar, where small bottles of red Italian bitters pop against artistic white tiled walls."

Our city has never shied away from modern art, architecture, design … even food. But behind it all are treasured traditions. Our city is steeped in culture and important history, but here we are innovators,creators, pioneers. And when it comes to our food and our restaurants, we love finding ways to balance the old with the new. That’s what it means to walk the line.

Filini Bar and Restaurant, located at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in downtown Chicago, walks that line with aplomb. “We want to stay as true as possible to traditional Italian cooking, but with a modern twist—a local twist,” Restaurant General Manager Francesco Tardio explains on a tour of Filini’s lounge. “We integrate ourselves into the local culture.”

In Italian culture, the meal is a nearly sacred experience. And at Filini, food and hospitality are administered with the same warmth as for a beloved house guest. Upon being seated, diners are introduced to the menu—a journey beginning with a selection of meats and cheeses, colorful antipasti platters, and fresh insalate. From there, diners choose primi and secondi—housemade pasta plates followed by entrées of chicken, veal, or seafood. Small, succulent side plates (contorni) of fingerling potatoes, soft polenta with mushrooms, and seasonable vegetables supplement the meal.

“Our menu has classic dishes from regions all over Italy,” Tardio explains. “But each has an interesting new twist—either on presentation or ingredients. We try to honor the ways Italian food has changed over time, and what it means for us to serve Italian food here in Chicago.” Filini’s menu portrays the evolution of Italian food: classic recipes made modern. For that reason, the cuisine is affectionately noted as “almost 100-percent Italian.”

This marriage of Old-World and New-World tastes and textures aims to intrigue and delight diners of all sorts. Sous Chef Carolina Diaz sums up that marriage with one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: The Sedani. In this dish, tube-shaped pasta noodles are tossed in a lightly spiced roasted red pepper sauce and topped with raw yellowfin tuna in a marinade of scallions, lemon oil, and gremolata—an herb mix of lemon zest, parsley, and garlic. The presentation is striking, and the contrasting temperature of the pasta and the tuna plays well with the complementing flavors of the dish, making for an intriguing and delightful bite. It’s one of Diaz’s favorite dishes.

“Once you try it, you can taste the hot and the cold blending with the spices and the creamy flavor,” Diaz says. “It’s fun to see the reaction on the customer’s face as it all comes together.” Tardio agrees. “Both the roasted pepper sauce of the dish and the raw fish are common throughout Italy,” he says. “This dish recalls the Italian fusion movement back home.”

Though the menu walks the line between Old World and New, Filini’s design is thoroughly contemporary—ideal for a spirited social experience, a quiet, intimate meal, or a combination of both. Just as with the balanced culinary approach, Filini’s upper and lower levels complement one another. “Upstairs we try to calm the senses, while downstairs we try to excite,” Tardio says. “The buzz is different in each space.”

Filini’s lower level welcomes guests to grab an afterwork cocktail with friends and encourages more social engagement, accompanied by subtle live music every Friday. Glowing spirits line the wall behind a long bar, where small bottles of red Italian bitters pop against artistic white tiled walls. Diners nosh on marinated Tuscan olives, warm almonds, or a traditional pizza hot from the wood-fired oven. In the chic lounge, illuminated by glittering glass-topped booths and an aura of sophistication, guests sip on a signature barrel-aged cocktail—like the classic Negroni—or enjoy one of many Italian aperitifs.

Upstairs, Filini shirks the stuffiness of white linen dining in favor of a more stimulating and casual sensibility. As diners make their way upstairs, they settle into a subdued ambience, where the small vineyard-sourced wine list and enticing dinner menu take the spotlight. A group of four can cozy up in an intimate, high-backed booth overlooking the street, or gather around one of the restaurant’s long communal tables.

And of course, a trip to Filini is incomplete without a taste of dolci (dessert), like the creamy Panna Gelato, sweet Bombolini (beignets), and delightfully crisp and smooth Cannoli. A prix-fixe option also rotates on a weekly basis—a great opportunity to sample the many tastes and styles of Filini’s almost 100-percent Italian experience. Filini’s chic and contemporary take on Italian tradition lets guests walk their own line: a quick shot of espresso at the coffee bar, a vibrant gathering of friends over an elaborate meal, or an intimate drink and shared dessert.

At Filini, the rustic family meals stretching back through generations of Italian kitchens are renewed, revitalized, and reborn. Walking the line between deep-seated traditions and modern trends isn’t a challenge—it’s what the experience at Filini is all about.