Alexander Argirov, a native of Sofia, Bulgaria, has been working in restaurants nearly his whole life.
"I started doing this when I was 15,” he said. “My dad put me to wash dishes in our family restaurant."
He and his business partners had wanted to open a place in the neighborhood for three years, observing that Hyde Park needed “something with a little more finesse, a little more elegance.”
Argirov categorizes Ascione Bistro "an elevated neighborhood restaurant.” He’s right: Ascione is relaxed, yet intimate; expensive, but worth guaranteeing a spot in your restaurant budget.
“We would like the neighborhood to know what to expect, which is why we have this spectrum of pastas, steak and fish, but also we would like them to know that they can come and have something different each and every day," Argirov said. “That’s why we run six or seven specials.”
Ascione takes numerous cues from yesterday — the menu’s signature market-price T-bone steak “Fiorentina” is dry-aged 45 days and served with roasted potatoes and Tuscan beans, with steakhouse-style creamed spinach ($8 extra) — but it doesn’t feel outdated. The dining room, done in deep blue, slate gray and caramel, looks handsomely modern.
Two more traditional appetizers were somewhat uneven – the crab cakes ($19, one of the evening’s specials) were exceptional with far more crab than cake and seasoned beautifully; the same couldn’t be said for the meatballs ($10), traditionally prepared with veal, pork and beef, but they were very dry. The grilled octopus ($12) with onion jam, balsamic and pico de gallo (geographically out-of-place, but not wrong: “Modern cuisine is going all directions,” Argirov said) was wonderfully tender, superior to many of the rubbery and tasteless versions I have sampled elsewhere in Chicago.
The kitchen’s deft hand with seafood continued into the main courses. Linguini ($23) came out dripping with shellfish in spicy, tomato sauce redolent of the sea. The branzino fillet, another special at $32, was pan-fried then finished in the oven; it was moist, flaky and light and served with a mound of spinach. Bitter trevisano (aka radicchio) is one of the highlights of winter produce and enlivened an arugula salad with endive and black truffle vinaigrette ($9).
Two other main courses were appropriate for midwinter. Chef Gaetano Ascione changes the preparation style for gnocchi ($16) regularly; on Christmas Eve, they came in a tomato-cream sauce with little dollops of goat cheese and managed to be filling but not dull. The chicken breast ($22, the least-expensive entree), prepared with lardons and served with a red wine sauce, was tender, juicy and remarkably flavorful.
Ascione really shines throughout dessert. Flourless chocolate mousse ($9) was dark and rich and cried out for an accompanying cup espresso, even though its texture was more like flourless chocolate cake rather than a mousse. Tiramisu ($9) came out in a lowball class, the mascarpone cream decadently luscious and abundant.
“Crema brucuata,” the restaurant’s take on creme brulee ($9), however, was light, fluffy and delicately flavored with lemon. The apple torte ($10) was a show-stopper, with golden fruit atop shatteringly crisp pastry. Everyone wanted to try the salted caramel ice cream.
The wine list focuses on mostly Italian and Californian white, red and sparkling wines, which range from $9 to $12 a glass and $32 to $98 a bottle, but a notevole curated section runs $90 to $160 per the bottle.
There is also a selection of $6 beers and a wintertime sangria (Cointreau, Cocchi Americano, spice fruit and mineral water) for $12. The bistro sports a full bar: “Noce Nera” with nocino, rye whiskey and black walnut bitters ($12) was a perfect aperitif. Argirov said he changed the wine and bar programs after opening, explaining that there was a demand for higher quality in the neighborhood.
“Hyde Parkers, most of them, do like to have a (several) course meal. They’re not in a rush,” he said. “They take their time.”