Des Plaines' Grazie!: Big American-Italian menu, low prices
My passion for Italian cuisine led me to a sprawling banquet and restaurant operation in Des Plaines. Heaping portions at reasonable prices provided big bang for the buck, while mysteriously "secret" sauces added substance and form to simple, yet hearty American-Italian fare.
Owner Nick Mitchell opened the 40,000-square-foot Grazie! Ristorante & Banquets in 1982, after earning a degree in hospitality management from Florida International University. Acting as manager as well as kitchen supervisor, Mitchell oversees the menu and cooking. Located on Oakton Street, one block east of Mannheim Road, Grazie! makes a good stop on the way to the nearby Allstate Arena.
Grazie's restaurant section seats 250. In the main dining room an opulent color palette of deep reds, blues and purples predominates, as do the Boticelli murals and stained-glass windows. While a bit flamboyant, the décor, like the sharply dressed waiters, exudes a welcoming atmosphere.
On a quiet Monday afternoon a group of four businessmen linger at a table in the main dining room. A steady stream of classic American-Italian songs such as Dean Martin's "That's Amore" fills the otherwise silent room.
Menu items reflect a distinctly American-Italian sensibility, in terms of heaping portions and stateside creations such as chicken cacciatore and pork chops vesuvio. Flavorful, yet light sauces and fresh herbs dominate among the appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, steaks, chicken and seafood.
Filet mignon in portobello mushroom sauce, at $20.95, tops the menu in terms of price. But the overflowing pastas, priced within the reasonable $11.95 to $12.95 range, and served with a salad or soup, offer a solid lunch bargain. Likewise, most of chicken dishes clock in at $13.95, a modest offer considering the accompanying house salad and Grazie! sliced red skin potatoes with peppers and onions.
Almost a dozen appetizers tempt. In the mood for plowing full steam ahead, we opt for the grilled calamari and one of the specials of the day, bruschetta - four slices of toasted bread served with four different accoutrements: tomato basil, pesto, goat cheese and smoked salmon.
We enjoyed the chewy texture and smoky flavor of the calamari, the fresh spinach leaves and tomatoes, and used our bread to soak up the sauce, a delectable concoction of olive oil, lemon and fresh parsley, which the waiter reluctantly informs us comes straight off the grill.
Entrees range from almost a dozen pasta dishes to various chicken breast dishes such as piccata and marsala, in addition to steaks, medallions of veal and seafood.
For something uncomplicated yet fulfilling, order the farfalle alla vodka, which served on a very large platter demands to be split among three or four people. This delicate yet palatable sauce relies on plum tomatoes, a bit of Russian vodka and cream, and diced onions.
We couldn't get enough of the salmon siciliano, which paired perfectly with the farfelle in tomato sauce. Once again, the sauce seduced us, this time a blend of white wine, lemon, capers and garlic taking all the credit. Grazie's sliced red skin potatoes made for good sauce scoops.
Salads also satisfy. The Riviera offers mesculin greens, aged provolone, diced plum tomato, cucumber, red onion, Gaeta olives and basil dressed in tangy balsamic vinaigrette. Classic Caesar, a simple affair of romaine with anchovy-parmesan dressing, lives up to its name.
Strawberry cheesecake and tiramisu round off a grand meal. We enjoyed the creamy, fresh texture of the cheesecake, and fell in love with the tiramisu, which had just the right combination of marscapone cream and Génoise chocolate sponge cake. No matter how stuffed there's always an "extra pocket" for these decadent (yet not rich) desserts.
Two waiters demonstrated an expert level of attentiveness and professionalism throughout the meal. I found our headwaiter a bit taciturn and reserved, while his "back-up" compensated for this with friendliness and polite conversation.
I couldn't help from indulging and enjoying, which seems to be Grazie's desired effect.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.
Grazie! Ristorante & Banquets
Facts: 1050 E. Oakton St., Des Plaines; (847) 299-0011; grazieristorante.com
Setting: Opulently decorated yet informal family-style Italian restaurant close to The Oaks shopping center
Price range: Appetizers $2.95 to $12.95; salads $3.95 with entrees, $8.95 a la carte; entrees $9.95 to $13.95; desserts $5.95; wine $6 by the glass, $20 to $40 by the bottle
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; champagne brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday, dinner 3 to 10 p.m.
Accepts: Reservations, major credit cards
Also: Full bar, free parking