On Wabash Avenue just south of Roosevelt Road in a revitalized part of Chicago sits Gioco. From the outside, the entrance seems unassuming. If you drive by too fast, you just might miss it. Inside, quaintness abounds, with subdued lighting, plenty of exposed historical brick, an inviting bar and a collection of well-arranged photos. An open kitchen with flames leaping from the grill infuses the room with a sense of action and excitement. The prosciutto slicer, placed prominently in the dining room, reminds patrons that this is an Italian restaurant even before a look at the menu confirms it.
Sitting across from me at one of the small tables aligned along the wall is Chef Gaetano Ascione, whose accent and love of life are unmistakably Italian. His decades of professional experience are evident in his cooking as well as the confidence with which he directs his staff just moments before opening the doors for another night of service. As the first customers arrived and before things got busy, we had a chance to chat. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Chef, you have quite a stunning bio. Fill me in a bit more about you and what makes you tick.
A: I was not born with spoon in hand, as they say, since my mom was not a good cook. I went to school in Italy, not because it was some burning passion of mine but because it could give me the best job out of school. The first year out of school, outside of Naples, was awful. With time, things got better, and I wound up doing lots of things — teaching, owning restaurants, running hotels — all in four continents: Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. For me, my philosophy of food, and especially Italian food, is three words: simple, rustic and brutal. What I mean by brutal is that you see what you get. There is no behind-the-scenes hidden stuff.
Q: After so many experiences around the world, now you are the chef of Gioco. Tell me about that.
A: I really love Chicago. People here like to eat. They don't go out to look around to see who else is there. Being the chef at Gioco is amazing. There is just something about this place. Just look around. Look at the bricks. Look at the different rooms. This place used to be a speak-easy, for real. It even had tunnels for bootlegging. The food we do here reflects my philosophy, as I said, and obviously Italian.
Q: Where are some of your favorite restaurants around the city? Any Italian favorites?
A: Eating out, for me, has two purposes. It is a time to relax with family and time to go outside your restaurant to learn something more about food. I can't go out for Italian food, as I spend the entire night analyzing the food or complaining about it. My wife, Lia, and my three kids tell me that it is not a pleasure to go to an Italian restaurant with me, but rather they have to suffer through it. So, now, I don't eat in Italian restaurants. Real close to here (Gioco) is the Eleven City Diner on South Wabash. It's a great Jewish deli with healthy portions but not humongous ones. The quality is perfect. Great matzo ball soup and a Reuben sandwich that is so tall it touches your chin and nose when you try to bite it. I am also a fan of Lao Sze Chuan (near) South Archer and Cermak in Chinatown. I lived for 18 years in Asia and came to love this kind of food, although I never learned to cook it. If I did learn to cook it, going to the restaurant would no longer be just a joy but work. I like to order a lot of food there and basically make a buffet on my table. It's earthy food that is great for cold weather, not expensive or froufrou like some other Chinese restaurants.
Q: Where do you like to take your wife out for something special?
A: I take Lia to Japonais. The food is terrific. And the location and ambience is really perfect. It's also not Italian, as I don't want to get kicked out of the place. The specials are always great, and I love the sashimi and sushi. It's at a level of freshness you don't always get in Chicago. And the waitstaff is really great too!
Q: What about your favorite fast-food nosh?
A: It's a pizza place called Spacca Napoli. I'm Neapolitan, and we invented pizza. Their pizza is really great. I am a purist. I get either the marinara or margherita pizza every time.
Q: But that is Italian food.
A: (Shaking his finger) No, it's pizza. You asked me about fast food.
Christopher Koetke is the vice president of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College. He also hosts the cooking show "Let's Dish" on the Live Well Network.