Thu. September 20, 2012 12:00 AM
by Rick Karlin
Tucked into an unassuming storefront in River North, it would be easy to pass by La Madia. There are dozens of similar places in the neighborhood, many much flashier. However, on the night of our visit, a dark overcast evening, the place seemed to have no problem filling tables.
What, I wondered, was the draw of this place? It's certainly not the décor, which has all the warmth of an airport lounge. It could be the friendly service or extensive wine list. It might even be the food, which is well prepared, if not entirely memorable. It certainly can't be for the prices that are, across the board, a tad too high for the level of food being offered.
One of the appetizers listed is identified as "bresaola", which usually refers to a dish from the Valtellina region consisting of beef, air-cured until it is slightly hard and chewy, a more sophisticated beef jerky, if you will. La Madia's version is more akin to a carpaccio. Served with a small salad of shaved fennel and sweet peppers with shards of Parmesan, it is perfectly fine, but not bresaola, and at $9, one of the more reasonably priced dishes on the menu.
The same can't be said for seasonal wild mushroom bruscetta, which consisted of flavorless toasted bread, topped with a bit of whipped ricotta and an uninspired blend of sautéed, under-seasoned fungi. Four small pieces of bread, a tablespoon or so of whipped ricotta and a few mushrooms seems a bit over-priced at $9. Either up the size of the serving or go a little more upscale on the ingredients if you're going to charge that much.
The arugula salad, while certainly a sizable serving, offers little more than a pile of greens, a few roasted grapes, slices of apple, and candied walnuts, all a bit over-dressed in walnut vinaigrette. At $10 it's not over-priced, but certainly no bargain. The pizzas are where the real price crimes occur. Ranging in price from $12 to $17, the small pizzas are not quite large enough for one as a meal or for two to share as an appetizer. The crust gets a nice char around the edges, but the centers are too thin to stand up to the toppings and become limp and mushy quickly.
Entrees fare a bit better. An order of ravioli stuffed with ground chicken, spinach and ricotta topped with a brown butter sauce wasn't overly large, but was so rich and satisfying that we couldn't finish the dish. It made for a wonderful side dish the next evening at dinner. Chianti braised short ribs served over a summer vegetable risotto was more than satisfying but should have been priced substantially less than the $23 menu price.
The best way to enjoy La Madia is to get a group of six or more together to take advantage of its reasonably priced family-style meals. The La Madia "Pizza Party" offers a choice of any two pizzas, two salads, choice of dessert and butter cookies served family-style for $14 a person (plus tax and tip). There is also an entire menu of gluten free options.