RPM Italian, the fifth restaurant collaboration of Chicago restaurant impresario Richard Melman’s three offspring, goes all out to stimulate the tastebuds before, during and after dinner. Not content to merely tout its 100-plus mostly Italian wines, RPM makes special efforts to promote palate-opening cocktails to its guests before the meal and bittersweet Italian herbal liqueurs, or amari, afterwards.
The restaurants operated by RJ, Jerrod and Molly Melman can be counted on to provide vibrant bar scenes as well as interesting and fun dining experiences. “We wanted RPM Italian to be a place that appeals to people who are serious about food, as well as people seeking a place to enjoy a cocktail,” says Jerrod Melman, noting the restaurant is open till 2 a.m. Thursdays and Fridays and 3 a.m. on Saturdays.
Paul McGee, director of cocktail development, was instrumental in creating RPM’s beverage program. With the amari program in particular being something new
in Chicago, McGee says he’s pleasantly surprised by how well it has caught on.
“The amari are from different regions of Italy. Each town in Italy has its own formula, from light to robust flavors with bitter finishes,” McGee explains. The after-dinner list of a dozen amari plus 10 more familiar liqueurs, including grappa, amaretto, limoncello and Cognac, is printed on one side of the dessert menu.
Featured amari, consumed neat or with coffee or espresso on the side, range from Montenegro, a light, citrusy liqueur with notes of orange and spices produced in Bologna, to a more robust Luxardo Amaro from Venice, which tastes more strongly of herbs with a black pepper finish. All amari and other featured after-dinner spirits are priced at $8.
Servers suggest pairing various amari with some of the desserts as well as enjoying them on their own. For instance, the Luxardo goes well with roasted black mission figs, served with crushed amaretti cookies and mascarpone crema, McGee says. He also recommends the Aggazzotti walnut liqueur with the tartufo—hazelnut gelato in a chocolate shell.
Most guests indulge in amari at their tables, but if there’s room at the four high-tops at the intimate amaro bar, they may move over there and watch the bartenders at work. Guests also are welcome to eat at that bar.
The same informality goes for the main 30-seat bar. Peak times, between 6 and 9:30 p.m., are booked far ahead in the 125-seat dining room, especially on weekends, so eating at the bar becomes an option that many guests choose. RPM opened at the end of February and has attracted a stylishly dressed, upscale crowd ever since.
The cocktails that the restaurant recommends enjoying before a meal range from a Negroni and classic Bellini to a Sergio Leone: made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, amaretto, lemon juice and egg white. The nine specialty aperitivos all are priced at $11.
Drinks sales comprise about 18 percent of the restaurant’s total sales, McGee says, with the cocktails and amari making up 39 percent of alcohol sales. The emphasis on the specialty cocktails and amari increases those total sales, he concludes, noting that, like most Italian restaurants, RPM sells quite a bit of wine as an accompaniment to the food.
The food is “more from Milan than Sicily,” says R.J. Melman, noting that the majority of Italian restaurants in Chicago have Sicilian roots. “We make all of our pastas in-house and most of the fresh cheeses.”
Pasta examples include Spicy King Crab with Squid Ink Spaghetti, Duck Agnolotti with Brussel Sprouts and Figs and Lobster Ravioli with Spinach Pasta, Lemon and Chile. Specialty entrees include Sliced Porterhouse Steak for two and Grilled Giant Prawns with Lemon and Herbs.
Heading the kitchen is Doug Psaltis, whose impressive resume includes having worked at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Alain Ducasse at the Essex House in New York. “The food is honest and simple. It’s our interpretation of authentic Italian,” he says.
The Melmans also plan to open two bar-oriented concepts in late summer in the same neighborhood. One will be a tiki bar and the other a country-and-western theme, McGee says.