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Volare Makes Me Want to Cantare

by Erica Bethe Levin – June 24, 2012
201 E. Grand Ave., Chicago

Volare Restaurant in ChicagoVolare has a very special place in my heart. In 2000, my dad took me to Chicago for the very first time to scope out Northwestern University. My mom had to stay home with my younger sister, so this was the first (and only) Father/Daughter trip I ever took. We flew into Midway, rented a car, coasted down Lakeshore Drive (where I fell in love), stayed at a hotel downtown and commuted to Evanston for a couple of days checking out the campus. While staying downtown, my dad and I asked the concierge where we should eat for our first ever Chicago meal. His answer: Volare.

We couldn’t find the recommended restaurant, so I remember hopping into an art gallery on Michigan Avenue and asking them where it was. They said to go down the stairs and we’d see it immediately. I still remember walking down those Michigan Avenue steps towards Grand Ave. It’s amazing the things we remember. My dad and I had one of those perfect meals – the kind you remember forever. Now, 11 years later, I was invited to return to the first place I ever dined in my favorite city in the world – a city that has welcomed me with open arms and treated me oh-so-well over the years. I jumped at the chance.

Upon walking into the booming restaurant on a Thursday night, I was overwhelmed with nostalgia. The first time I ate at Volare I was with the most important man in my life. Now I’ve returned with the second most important man in my life. I was a tearful mess…ready for a Negroni. Although the bartender needed a bit of instruction on how to make the classic cocktail, it ended up being one of the better Italian martinis I’ve ever had. So I ordered two.

Squid Ink Pasta at VolareThe very friendly general manager sat us at our romantic table for two (ironically, the SAME table my dad and I sat at over a decade before). I saved up for this feast all week (well, three days) and knew I was going to indulge in the kind of meal that would make my Italian family proud. I was prepared for pasta, bread, veal; the whole nine yards. So I ate. And ate. And ate. And it was truly delicious.

We began the marathon with the Grigliata Mista (sea scallops, calamari, octopus and shrimp, fire grilled and laced with aged balsamic vinegar and Frantoio olive oil). This really was a seafood-lover’s dream. Good seafood doesn’t need much; the hint of char, olive oil and balsamic was all this dish needed to highlight the flavors of the delectable fish. And upon recommendation by our server, we also ordered the Ravioli di Aragosta (lobster ravioli, oyster mushrooms, peas, truffle, tomato sauce). I loved this. The tomato sauce was just as it should be and the rest of the ingredients came together like a delicious symphony.

Like the true Italians that we are (me half, him Irish), we ordered two half-sized portions of pasta, which traditionally comes before the main course. The Gnocchi Alla Vodka (homemade ricotta dumplings in vodka sauce) was one of the best gnocchi’s I’ve ever tasted (and I’m really not one for hyperbole). They were pillows of love and I devoured more than my share of that plate. As the absolute biggest fan of squid ink pasta, I was not totally impressed by the Spaghetti Neri al Pesce (black spaghetti tossed with sage, shrimp, lump crab and scallops, simmered in a creamy rosé sauce). This pasta was not homemade and my spoiled self has only indulged in my chef friend’s house-made variety. I would have saved the room and gone with the Carpaccio di Manzo (sliced natural beef filet, salad of artichokes, arugula, shaved pecorino and mustard aioli), a dish I had been eyeing since I scoped out the menu online before dining, but I was too afraid of over-ordering (really?!?).

Veal parmigiana at Volare in ChicagoFor an entrée – although it defies my normal healthy dining options – I ordered my childhood favorite: Nodino di Vitello (Milanese-style, pan-fried veal chop, tomato sauce, mozzarella, side of penne). But this was a grown up version of veal parmigiana, and age has been good to it. This was size-of-your-head pounded veal – super thin – breaded and topped with that freaking perfect tomato sauce and an abundant amount of mozzarella. I was in heaven.

After two appetizers, two pre-entrée pastas, the largest veal dish I’ve ever had and tastes of Boyfriend’s special sea bass, I was a bit too full for dessert. So we finished our Italian vino and closed up shop: happier, fuller, brimming with Thursday date night excitement and drenched in Negroni.

With the nostalgic emotion I brought into the restaurant, I wasn’t sure that they could live up to my perfect meal 11 years ago. As I sat across from the (second) most important man in my life, I realized that Volare delivered yet another perfect dining experience:  a bustling environment where I could still hear myself think and chat with my date; fabulous, authentic food, great drinks and a super friendly staff. Well done, Volare. I won’t wait another decade to return.

About the Author: Erica Bethe Levin

Erica Bethe Levin is the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of She loves to write, but she also really loves her dog Pippin, spaghetti, wine and Billy Joel.