'Top Chef' Fabio Viviani Preps for Siena Tavern Opening

By Janet Rausa Fuller on February 11, 2013 11:01am | Updated on February 11, 2013 2:24pm

RIVER NORTH — Fabio Viviani endeared himself to a national audience as the goofy, good-looking Italian on the fifth season of Bravo's "Top Chef."

But he knows charm alone, which he has in spades, won't bring locals into Siena Tavern, his 230-seat "Italian-inspired" spot opening Saturday at 51 W. Kinzie St.

And he said his first Chicago venture, all 10,000 square feet of it, isn't just some ego trip.

"If I'm a guy from L.A., and I'm well-known, and I expect to come to Chicago and say, 'Let me show you how things work in L.A.,' I'm going to get my ass kicked," said Viviani, a Florence native who owns two restaurants in Los Angeles and Moorpark, Calif.

"It's a big deal for me to be here. I have to prove myself," he said.

The last several weeks have been intense, a steady cycle of tasting and refining dishes, training staff, and more tasting. His days start as early as 5:30 a.m. and can go until midnight.

"In the last two months, we tried at least 200 to 300 dishes several times," Viviani said. His biggest worry is "to make sure my food is great and that I'm giving a good value."

He has whittled the menu down to about 40 dishes, what he called "the cravers, the dishes everyone loved the most." There will be pizza and crudo and pasta made in house, but also "big salads, American classics," he said.

The check average will range $12-$18 a person at lunch and $30-$50 at dinner.

Six dishes on the menu are from recipes handed down from his grandmother and mother. These were non-negotiable: gnocchi; lasagna; butternut squash ravioli; tiramisu made with orange liqueur, mascarpone and smoked, roasted chocolate; coccoli (like beignets "but so freaking light!"); and something called sticky potatoes.

"You've never had anything like them," Viviani said, his voice rising with excitement. "My mom braises potatoes in olive oil. The peels get super crisp, and we toast them with herbs, olive oil, aged Parmesan, but they're sticky because they're soaked with olive oil. They're crispy, crunchy, chewy."

Viviani's partners in Siena Tavern are Lucas Stoioff and David Rekhson of the DineAmic Group, which also owns Bull & Bear and Public House. Chef David Blonsky will oversee the kitchens at all three locations.

DineAmic is developing at least two more restaurants in Chicago — Mexican and steak concepts — and projects in Miami and New York as well, Stoioff said.

Viviani met Stoioff and Rekhson about three years ago at Public House while in town for consulting work. They hit it off. "For the next year and a half, we'd hang out whenever he was in town," Stoioff said.

When Stoioff and Rekhson settled on the Kinzie Street space and started tossing around ideas for an Italian concept, Viviani was the only chef they thought to call — or rather, text-message.

"We knew we wanted a chef from Italy, someone who was making fresh pasta as a boy, who was immersed in the culture," Stoioff said. "Fabio takes things back to basics. He makes everything from scratch, and he's meticulous when it comes to the quality of the product coming out."

Viviani, in turn, has ensconced himself in the ways of the Windy City. He spent more time here last year than in Los Angeles. He shares a house in the suburbs with his girlfriend, where he'll stay until March 7. After that, he plans to commute back to his adopted hometown two weeks a month.

"What I love about Chicago is you don't see a lot of black limos and a bunch of people showing off," he said. "It's the nonpretensiousness that I adore. I fit right in."

There is still more to come from Viviani, including the April release of his second cookbook, "Fabio's Italian Kitchen," and another possible TV show. He continues to host the online cooking show "Chow Ciao" on Yahoo.

"I don't want fame," he said. "I want legacy."

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