For MICHELIN-starred Spiaggia’s new executive chef, Eric Lees, it’s all about the fresh pasta.
“When you’re rolling pasta by hand that’s what it’s all about—the technique is all there, so you don’t want to cover up all the beautiful work you just did. You want to taste it,” he says, reminiscing about a recent trip—a pilgrimage, really—to Italy.
Spiaggia founder Tony Mantuano, who recently announced he’s leaving the restaurant because “Eric is crushing it,” trained at three-MICHELIN-starred Dal Pescatore in Lombardia, a tradition passed down to former executive chef Joe Flamm, and then Lees. Time in Dal Pescatore and traveling around northern Italy inspired Lees to focus on specific regions and simple, fresh ingredients on the Spiaggia menu.
“Here in America as chefs we sometimes put stuff on our food just to put it there even though it doesn’t make sense or do anything for the dish, we always feel we have to do more and more,” he says. “Working in an Italian restaurant you have to know how to restrict yourself and stay true to how Italians really cook.”
Pasta, for example, should be simple.
“A lot of Italian people spend all day rolling pasta—so you don’t want to overdo it and ruin that,” he says.
In Italy, his goal was to learn one thing and really capture it from each chef he worked with.
The fatto a mano pasta (read: handmade) on his fall menu was similar to the fatto a mano at Dal Pescatore—a tortellini served with clarified butter and Parmesan. There’s a caramelle pasta with roasted pumpkin, foie gras, butter, Parmesan and black pepper—”like little candies stuffed with foie gras”—and a dried spaghetti from Le Marche with confit cherry tomatoes, cippolini onions that have been caramelized with bone marrow, Pecorino and grated horseradish. “I had a dish that was similar to that in Milan and it blew my mind,” Lees says.
Spiaggia’s winter menu will focus on Umbria and its black winter truffles, and all menus will be as seasonal as possible. That can be tricky in the Midwest, but Lees is proud of the fact that between himself and his sous chef, Spiaggia was the number one restaurant visitor to the Green City Market last year.
“We go every Saturday and Wednesday,” he says. “And we preserve a lot of food.”
He has 190 preserves ready for the winter.
“We’re taking the seasonality of squashes and pumpkins and hearty herbs and combining it with all these awesome preserves. We’re looking for a flavor to go with a dish and are like, ‘ohh we have that awesome raspberry jam!’ It’s really fun.”
Lees has been with Spiaggia since 2016, first as sous chef running the café, and then as chef de cuisine. He started getting more involved over the last year in preparation for Flamm’s exit, and officially took over as executive chef on October 1. He released his first new menu on October 24. Because he’s been part of the restaurant for so long, he doesn’t think guests will see any major shake-ups.
“This place has been here for 35 years. There’s nothing I really want to change,” he says. “As staff come and go it’s about showing people how we do it here at Spiaggia, and Tony’s vision of this place is exactly what I like to perceive it as.”
It’s a good strategy, considering Spiaggia’s success so far and place as one of Chicago’s most beloved Italian restaurants. Lees hopes he can fill people with simple, delicious food, and transport them to Italy for a couple of hours a night.
“I wasn’t [in Italy] for that long, but even going there for a few weeks grew this other passion I never knew I had—I love that culture. I wish I could just take a region of Italy and put it here in the United States.”
Us, too. But until then, there’s Spiaggia.
Photos by Matt Reeves.