BUCKTOWN — If you don't know much about rugby, you're not alone, according to the chef of an Italian restaurant who's bringing the team-oriented sport into the limelight — along with Irish dishes — during a six-week experiment.
"Rugby is kind of like the redheaded stepchild of sports in America ... . Everyone ignores it for whatever reason, even though it was the sport that American football evolved from," said chef Theo Gilbert, 43, of the Ripasso restaurant.
Beginning Tuesday, Ripasso, at 1619 N. Damen Ave. in Bucktown, will morph into the Red-Headed Step Child and split its menu evenly between Italian and Irish-inspired dishes and offer beers on tap.
Classic rugby matches will play during the daytime on a newly-installed flat-screen TV, too.
The restaurant will donate 5 percent of the bill to an affiliated rugby team mentioned by any Chicago rugby player, family member or friend who comes in. At the tail end of the six-week experiment, Gilbert will "face off" against fellow rugby-loving chef Michael Carlson from Schwa in a second annual charity chef battle, "Ruck 4 the Kids."
According to Gilbert, who serves on the board of directors of the the not-profit Chicago Wapiti Rugby Football Club, enough money was raised at last year's fundraiser for every child on the co-ed youth league to have their own ball.
Gilbert said rugby is a good sport for children to learn because "here in the U.S., there's a lot of emphasis on individual athletes as superstar demigods that transcend the sport."
"The best rugby teams in the world are anonymous. Players are just a number on the kit," he said.
Gilbert and his wife, Meghan, were married in a small church in rural Ireland and said that their dream was always to open an Italian restaurant in Ireland. However, they've stayed in Chicago and live in the Old Irving Park neighborhood where they homeschool their four children. All of the kids play rugby and are involved in Irish culture through folk music programs.
If rugby is a team sport, so is converting a restaurant overnight.
Gilbert, his children, wife, and chef di cuisine Lauren McAvinchey — who previously worked with Theo Gilbert at Terragusto and is a wing for North Shore Rugby — were busy transforming the family-owned and operated restaurant into the Red-Headed Step Child Monday.
Highlights from the Red-Headed Step Child’s Irish-inspired half of the new menu include corned beef sliders, shepherd's pie and Dublin Coddle, a ham and potato stew made with traditional bangers from Noble Square's The Butcher & Larder.
Irish side dishes include an appetizer influenced by Meghan Gilbert called "Meg's Puff Balls," made of crispy fried potato balls with sour cream dip as well as an array of potato dishes including potatoes mashed with kale and cabbage.
Those expecting to eat Ripasso's Italian standbys can find them in a section of the menu called "Italian-issimo" offering house specialties such as pappardelle and polpetti, which are handmade meatballs slow-cooked in tomato sauce.
Prices on the "Irish side" of the menu range from $4 to $15, while the Italian dishes run from $3 to $25.
The most pricey Italian-issmo entree is a roasted half chicken with cabbage, mushroom and sausage stuffing ($25); the priciest Irish-Inspired entree is a ham shank with savoy cabbage and creamy mushroom sauce ($15).
While the plan is to change gears only for six weeks, Gilbert said that people are asking him if there's any chance the Red-Headed Step Child will become permanent.
"If it's a good six weeks, we'll see. One of the benefits of being an owner-operator is that you can do fun things like this and change overnight," he said.
The Red-Headed Step Child at 1619 N. Damen Ave. will be open for lunch at noon Thursday-Sunday; Dinner daily at 5 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling 773-342-8799.