Chicago has all kinds of places to eat. There are steakhouses, takeout joints, BYOBs, casual neighborhood restaurants, and tasting menu spots. And then there are Big Chicago Restaurants (BCRs). What exactly is a BCR? It’s a restaurant with a huge space, an almost impossibly long menu, and a chef or team that both your boss and your dogwalker have heard of. BCRs are always crowded, and usually pretty hard to get into. But despite all this, BCRs aren’t always worth your time. Often, despite the hype, they’re just mediocre (or even outright bad). Etta is a BCR, but the good news is that it also happens to be an enjoyable spot with excellent food.
Etta’s Bucktown space is very large (two floors, two big bars, and a rooftop patio), and its long menu is full of pastas, pizzas, roasted meats, and plenty of vegetables for vegetable-ordering people (you know who you are). It’s from the same people as Maple & Ash, although the two spots don’t have much in common, and it gets incredibly crowded, so you can’t expect to just wander in and get a table. In other words, this place definitely checks the BCR boxes.
But more important than any of these things is the fact that all the food is rich and flavorful - it’s the kind of spot where you’ll start the stretchy-pants countdown about as soon as you place your order. The focal point of the menu here is a wood-fired hearth, and the stuff being made in it is really good. The pizzas, in particular, are delicious - there are six kinds (like truffle mushroom or guanciale and giardiniera), all with a chewy, bubbly crust we really like. The meat dishes, including a straightforward chicken with mashed potatoes that tastes like the platonic ideal of a Midwestern Sunday dinner, are also tasty, as are the housemade pastas, which (as far as we can tell) have very little to do with the hearth. If you don’t have at least two of them on the table, you’ve made a terrible mistake.
Reservations (if you can get them) are your best bet, but if you do try to walk in, you’ll probably find a bunch of people waiting around in front of the host stand. Luckily - because this is a BCR - there are two full bars where you can grab a seat and even eat something. And while some BCRs feel like crowded sh*tshows where no one knows what’s going on, this place generally comes across as well-organized even when it’s clear that 15 people are trying to find a way to squeeze into a booth for six.
When it comes to restaurants, Chicago really likes big - big spaces, big menus, and big, familiar names lurking on those menus. But while Etta has all the qualities of a classic BCR, the food and general experience don’t suffer as a result of the scale. Etta is what it looks like when a BCR just works.
There are two different focaccias with spreads on the menu, and you should make sure to get some for the table. Our favorite is the one with honey-sweetened ricotta.
This looks like shrimp scampi, but instead of garlic, the strongest flavors are ginger, mint, and smoked tomato. Once you’ve accepted that’s it’s not a weird scampi, it’s really tasty.
The meatballs at Etta are almost identical to the meatballs at Maple & Ash, and cost a little less. Since they’re really good, we’re not sad about having a more affordable place to get them.
We’re not big fans of the octopus here. It’s tough, and the basil, lemon, and aioli accompaniments are boring. You can do better, and should, by ordering the shrimp and/or meatballs.
Yes, these have a kind-of-precious name. But it’s actually pretty accurate. These dumplings in a light truffle sauce absolutely belong on your table.
There are usually six pizzas on the menu - five staples and a seasonal option. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but our favorite is the Fire Pie. It comes with giardiniera and guanciale, and if the Chicago flag were made out of pizza, this spicy/porky creation might be it.
Almost all of Etta’s pastas are made in house, and they’re fantastic. The cavatelli has a perfect texture to grab onto the delicious bolognese sauce. This is one of those I-want-to-unhinge-my jaw-to-consume-as-much-as-possible situations.
Another perfectly textured pasta. The sauce is on the looser side, and has a great parmesan flavor but a very mild pepper flavor. Get this for someone who complains about heartburn.
The pasta, clams, and crab are all tossed in a spicy ’nduja butter and topped with crispy garlic. Order this, and make sure there’s bread on the table to swipe the bowl.
A very good half chicken - and one of the best parts about the dish is the potato puree that comes with it. This is basically the Sunday dinner you always wish you’d had growing up.
The bone-in lamb is cooked nicely, but we’re not into the too-acidic yogurt sauce it’s served with.
This is one of those things you’re going to want to order once you see it on other tables, but you should probably only get it if you have two other people to share it with. It’s pork belly and pork shoulder served with a bunch of pickled things, lettuce cups, and bread.
There are only three desserts at Etta, and they’re all good. But if you have to choose just one, get the apple galette. It has earl grey ice cream that’s actually great, meaning it doesn’t taste like old leaves.