Coco Pazzo is a Chicago Thirst Parlor With a Tuscan Twist

Posted: Oct 27, 2008 12:01 AM
Coco Pazzo is a Chicago Thirst Parlor With a Tuscan Twist

Chicagoans love their after-work libations almost as much as their sports teams. But if you're a visitor being hosted by a local, try this quiz that would probably stump even the late broadcast voice of the Cubbies, Harry Carey.

Who invented the bar? Give up? Then pay up with a tall, cool one.

Barmakers Wallace & Hinz tell us the Western saloon era was born around 1849 and a bar was nothing more than a table with shelves behind it to accommodate thirsty goldminers who wanted a "good, strong shot of whiskey."

During the Civil War -- and the gilded age of saloons with ornate, carved bars -- barkeeps, tired of pouring straight shots, started combining liquors and the mixed drink was introduced.

At Coco Pazzo in Chicago, no one knows the pedigree of the long, rectangular, antique bar rescued from a local tavern. But classic, creative cocktails are sliding across it and its 10 royal blue and gold bar stools are packed.

Chicago, Sinatra's "Toddlin' Town," is riddled with great drinking dens festooned with legends. The Billy Goat Tavern, ca. 1934 on North Michigan is supposedly the hole-in-the-wall where the "Chee burger, Chee burger, Chee burger, no fries, cheeps" "Saturday Night Live" skit originated. It also has a full bar laden with tourists.

The bar at Coco Pazzo (300 W. Hubbard; 312-836-0900; in the River North neighborhood (and not to be confused with the Coco Pazzo Cafe) is more of a hideaway for Chicagoans, known for its authentic Tuscan cuisine, Italian wines and wood-burning oven rather than its gin and tonics. Strike up a conversation at the bar and you could be chatting with an exec from Boeing or the municipal bond house Nuveen, a morose stock trader from Goldman Sachs or venerable LaSalle Bank (now BankAmerica), artists, architects, Richard Muti, maestro from the Chicago Symphony, director of the Italian Cultural Institute or Mayor Richard Daley.

Don't expect star wattage, although Chicago's own Jim Belushi and actress Jennifer Anniston slip in discreetly now and then.

More deals are probably wheeled at the Park Grill in Millennium Park, but for a friendly mix of business, social gatherings and entertaining, Coco Pazzo's bar is more comfortable, not snooty. And there are plenty of transactions either sired or dissected at this bar with its casual or corporate crowd.

Says Jack Weiss, co-owner: We're designed for comfort. Women are dressed to the nines in their finest jewelry sitting next a hot new artist in jeans. In case you are wondering, Coco Pazzo is a twist on a Tuscan proverb and Italian for The Crazy Chef.

The head bartender, Tony Agovic, is quite sane, though, and very friendly. He holds court in the high-ceiling bar, which is elevated from the restaurant floor and sits square in front of the open kitchen with its sweet smelling wood burning oven. Walls are cream colored and the floors are Italian Cypress. A furniture factory many years ago, the old wooden timbers and rafters overhead give it a rustic elegance and warmth.

Every dish on Coco Pazzo's lunch, dinner and dessert menu can be ordered and served atop the mahogany bar. A favored appetizer is Cozze al Vapore, mussels steeped in white wine, garlic, majoram and tomato, $9. The wood roasted organic King salmon with beluga lentils in whole grain mustard sauce is delicious and fairly priced at $24. The prosciutto pizze (cq) with tomato and mozzarella is a meal at $11.

While it seems like every saloon is pushing faux martinis mixing every fruit, flavored spirit and garnish imaginable, Tony is a traditionalist. A favorite drink at Coco Pazzo's Bar, especially during Chicago summers but served year round, is the internationally infamous Bellini. Created at Harry's Bar in Venice, the authentic version is puree of white peaches a Champagne flute and filled with Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine. Tony Agovic and his team duplicate the recipe exactly for $12. A little known sibling to the Bellini is the Carnevali but made with raspberry puree for the same price.

Coco Pazzo's cocktails are well-crafted and good-sized pours. But the wine list is a passport-free trip to Tuscany. For the adventurer, there are 10 to 12 wines by the glass. A nice, medium bodied Tuscan white is Terre Di Tufi at $14 for a 6 oz glass. Tony recommends red wine drinkers order the Barbera d'asti, a rich table wine from the Piedmont Region for $9. Proprietor Jack Weiss is a fan of what are called "super Tuscans," a blend of different grapes from the region that defy description. Jack calls them "creative, big, bold and very approachable."

Chicago, of course, loves its beer and the suds flow freely. But Jack and Tony are choosy about their offerings. The list is limited to Morette, an Italian beer, Amstel Light, Heineken, Sam Adams and non-alcoholic Buckler, all $5 a bottle. Otherwise, there is no draft, no Budweiser and no Miller brands, a gutsy decision in this Mecca of the Midwest.

Between the beers and the wines, though, the great values at Coco Pazzo are the cocktails that are a good cross section of vintage and contemporary. Tony's Manhattan offers a choice of premium bourbons like Jack Daniels, Maker's Mark, Booker's, Baker's or Wild Turkey --$8.50 to $9. The Coco Pazzo martini is dry as the Sahara and poured to the lip with Beefeater's, Tanqueray, Bombay or Hendriks Gin, $9 to $10.

Once in a while, someone will order a rich Grasshopper-crme de menthe, crme de cacao, milk and cream, shaken and served straight up with a mint sprig. Says Tony. "If you have to ask how many calories, don't order one."