When the chef bug bit Terry Rempert, he sold his 20-year-old printing business and, after earning a culinary degree, took over Marconi’s, a popular spot in downtown La Grange. Though he quickly renamed it La Buona Vita (the good life), other changes were more incremental, as much for the customers’ comfort level as his own. In mid-January, Rempert unveiled a redecorated dining room (new colors, new lighting and an eye-catching, circa-1850s map of Italy), a new cocktail program and new menu items.
The dining room is lovely (and usually packed). The menu remains a work in progress.
The menu arrives in a heavy, embossed-cover binder filled with plastic-sleeved pages. Fifteen pastas, nine red-meat entrees, seven chicken, eight seafood — not to mention a half-dozen daily specials on a separate sheet — make up a daunting assortment to contemplate, one that suggests the precise opposite of what a scratch kitchen (Rempert bought an imported extruder to make his own pastas) wants to convey. Cut the menu to a single page, train your waiters to inform guests that their old favorites are available on request, and LBV’s message will be far more clear.
Dining at LBV is a value proposition. There are rotating featured discounts each weekday. Entrees include soup or salad, and the salad is better than it has to be. Portions are substantial.
The grilled calamari gets dinner off to an eye-catching start. Calamari-steak slices, tossed with olive oil, garlic and some red-pepper flakes, are coddled in endive leaves, arrayed like petals around a center of mixed greens and chopped tomatoes. Stuffed banana peppers, an occasional special, aren’t nearly as camera-worthy, but the lively peppers, and the sausage-spinach-mozzarella-marinara filling, make for fun eating. Artichokes Francese (egg batter, lemon-butter sauce) are messy but tasty.
The chef’s heart is more in the pastas than the proteins. All the pastas I tried (I include the very good lobster risotto for efficiency’s sake) were terrific, among them an appropriately lusty linguini puttanesca and a buttery but gently briny linguini with clams. A simple penne dish with hearty sausage, rosemary and tomato-cream sauce was everything you’d want in such a dish, and short-rib ravioli in a murky porcini-mushroom sauce was the star of one of my visits.
By contrast, veal saltimbocca was solid but uninspiring, and a strip steak special one night, advertised as a sous-vide-and-sear preparation, had been overcooked to a grayish, flavorless lump. I might have griped that my strip steak was bone-in, but at least I had something to bring home to the pooch.
Rempert cleverly turns his profiteroles into dining-room advertisements by doubling up on the ice cream; when this towering plate is carried to a table, you can see other guests taking notice. It’s just vanilla gelato with chocolate, caramel or raspberry sauces, but the choux-pastry puffs are good, and to see one is to want one.
The beverage program includes a large number of affordable (less than $50) Italian wines and a reserve list for those in a mood to spend. A nice assortment of craft beers and a list of cocktails that includes Italian twists of classic drinks (Sicilian mule, anyone?) round out the options, which are even more appealing midweek ($6 cocktails Thursday, half-price on certain wine bottles Wednesday).
By Phil Vettel