Review: Tre Dita, the Italian restaurant with steak and a pasta lab by celebrated chef Evan Funke in Chicago

Tre Dita has become the Chicago home away from home for celebrated chef Evan Funke, but the restaurant as a whole has yet to match the mastery of his pasta.

That’s surprising since the new Italian establishment is run by Lettuce Entertain You. The biggest restaurant group in the city made the chef a partner in the concept.

Funke is perhaps best known for his restaurants in the Los Angeles area where he’s based. Their celebrity diners include everyone from Michelle Obama to Beyoncé.

Here, the fledgling business features a bar and restaurant on the second floor of the St. Regis Chicago luxury hotel in the Lakeshore East neighborhood. Bar Tre Dita opened in February, and the restaurant followed a month later in March.

Funke said when he initially talked about Tre Dita with Lettuce co-founder Rich Melman, and his son and president of the restaurant group, R.J. Melman, they talked about a Tuscan steakhouse. Because Tuscany celebrates beef and so does Chicago, the chef said. Then they realized they wanted a Tuscan experience. There just so happens to be quite a bit of beef on the menu, he added, but there are far more pastas and antipasti on the menu than there is beef.

Especially pastas. There’s a signature Funke pasta lab as you walk toward the restaurant.

“All of my restaurants, whether they’re in L.A. or Las Vegas or Chicago, the through line is always pasta,” Funke said. “Sometimes a bowl of pasta is a bowl of pasta and that’s OK. But what I seek is the connection between the pasta maker and the diner.”

If you look through the glass of the pasta lab, he added, and you see a maker rolling dough, putting their heart and soul into repetition after repetition, you’ll never look at that pasta the same.

“When people come in, they’re eating like they’re gonna die tomorrow,” said Funke, because reservations are difficult to get. “They’re really ordering as much on the menu as possible.”

To say that reservations are hard to come by is an understatement. The restaurant is open seven days a week, but for dinner only. Reservations are released seven days in advance, and book up fast. You can call and find more seats though.

You can also order from the restaurant menu on the expansive bar side despite what the website says.

The restaurant’s intention is about sharing, the chef said, and the conviviality of Italian dining.

Funke may be a maestro of pasta, but his schiacciata bianca has become a must-order item, and it’s designed for sharing. The menu describes it as a Tuscan focaccia. But it’s not like any of the flatbreads you’ll find around town, or the attributed region of Italy.

The chef has said his schiacciata is light and airy, the texture of a freshly fried doughnut. That won’t prepare you for what appears as a golden dimpled cake, glowing with extra virgin olive oil, served ceremoniously on a silver cake stand and a white doily. Showered with fragrant rosemary crisps, bejeweled with sea salt crystals and sliced in pillowy quarters, it’s lighter than the lightest yeasted doughnut you’ve ever imagined.

“Schiacciata in Tuscany and my schiacciata in Tre Dita are two very, very different things,” Funke said.

Not just at Tre Dita, but his other restaurants too, he added, where it’s called sfincione. In 2010, Funke had a sfincione at Panificio Graziano in the center of Palermo in Sicily that would obsess him for years.

“It just absolutely floored me,” the chef said. “The flavor was similar to what you would find in a pizzeria, like a Sicilian slice or even Detroit-style pizza, and not terribly dissimilar to Chicago deep dish in thickness.”

As you probably know, we have more than one Chicago-style deep dish. He means something similar to a pan pizza, where the crust is thick yet light. Not the deep dish pizza where the crust is high, but thin like a pie crust.

“So when I got back to the states, I started tinkering and tinkering and tinkering,” Funke said. “And with the help of a pastry chef, Zairah Molina, we came up with this formula. And it’s taken on very few iterations since then.”

The schiacciata rossa, topped with tomato sauce and feathery fluffs of cheese, could carry the crown of a new Chicago-style deep dish, with familiar flavors captured on a cloud.

At Tre Dita, Funke had to work with an actual doughnut chef, co-founder of Do-Rite Donuts Francis Brennan, because the weather and the humidity varies so much in Chicago, compared with Funke’s restaurants around L.A. and in Las Vegas.

“We did the same thing for the pasta lab,” he added. They had to adjust the humidity controls and formulas for all pastas made behind the window.

That includes the pici, spaghetti’s thicker Tuscan cousin, tossed with cacio e pepe.

“It’s a rowdy noodle, isn’t it?” Funke asked.

It is! When I tried to twirl a single strand, it uncoiled repeatedly. I wished I’d brought chopsticks to the noodle fight. It’s best eaten strand by strand, “Lady and the Tramp” style.

Cacio e pepe is abundantly black pepper heavy and piquant from the pecorino, the chef said.

“But then you fold in this textural aspect and they’re all fighting for dominance,” Funke said. “And it’s just this experience in your mouth. Like what is going on? I love that it’s so rowdy. And I think it pairs just spectacularly with that condimento.”

As the first of all 10 pastas I ordered in two visits, I initially thought the pici was a prelude to what’s become known as his controversial pasta cooking style.

The late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote in 2017, “The ultrafirm texture is definitely his house style — you could interpret it as an extreme interpretation of what Italians call ‘al dente,’ cooked to provide resistance to the tooth …”

And current L.A. Times critic Bill Addison wrote in 2022, “The hill Funke will forever die on concerns the texture he feels pasta should be cooked: two shades firmer than al dente …”

But his pasta is different in Chicago. I wondered, has that style evolved and literally softened?

“It absolutely has,” Funke said. Al dente is on a spectrum, he added, and it’s also very subjective. “What is considered al chiodo in Rome is like super crazy hard to everybody else.”

The gnudi di spinaci, gnocchi’s tender Tuscan cousin, infused green with spinach and earthy with wild mushrooms, is quiet yet complex, holding pure comfort and contentment. The tortelli di taleggio e patate, essentially ravioli stuffed with Yukon gold potato and cheese, is a labor-intensive pasta that will have you appreciating its maker, especially when the tiny pillows are slipped in a pool of butter and sage. The rigatoncini all’arrabbiata, garnished with a slender red chile pepper, delivers the heat in an elemental tomato sauce coating the bowl of chunky tubes.

The rigatoni con guanciale e pomodorini, the pasta a bit bigger than its spicy sibling, looks so similar until a bite reveals exquisitely crispy bits of cured pork cheek. The spaghetti alle vongole seems to be more pristine Manila clams than the pasta we probably think we know best. The pappardelle con ragù d’anatra, similarly highlights the rich shredded duck ragù over the wide ribbons of pasta. The lasagne bastarde though, is a celebration of the extraordinary spinach green pasta sheets, a nod to Funke’s Italian pasta maestra, Alessandra Spisni, made with chestnut flour, but served over pesto genovese and finished with Sicilian pine nuts, so somewhat Tuscan, but thoroughly delicious.

The tagliatelle al ragù and linguine al limone though seemed too soft. Was that the chef’s intention?

Yes, for several reasons.

“It’s basically impossible to cook al dente fresh noodles, like tagliatelle,” Funke said. “It should be soft and supple.”

He tries to focus on how they cook pasta in Italy, but also how we eat it in Chicago.

“Before, I was a horse with blinders on,” Funke said. “And I did not care about what people thought about how undercooked the pasta was, because I drew a hard line.”

The tagliatelle al ragù took me back to a favorite childhood Chinese dish, because that dish was more about tender pork than the pasta.

“And this is not a pasta that lives in the Instagram age,” the chef said. “If you stopped to take a picture of it, you’re doing yourself a disservice to that pasta.”

What can pause for pictures is the tiramisu classica by pastry chef Juan Gutiérrez, but it’s simply the classic dessert. The Tre Dita gattò though, with chocolate wrapped around devil’s food cake and dark chocolate mousse, had a pile of dark cherries clumped on the plate.

Finish with a striking slice of torta della nonna that’s so light it rivals gelato, and the baci al limone, chewy and bright lemon almond bites, which Funke said were his favorite cookies and understandably so.

For drinks, get the refreshing Tre cocktail mixed with Piùcinque Italian gin, or the wonderfully woodsy Dita cocktail made with Cappelletti sfumato rhubarb amaro.

I considered ordering the 42-ounce, 60-day aged, three-fingers-thick namesake porterhouse, but clearly you don’t need a $290 steak to have a good time. When I asked my server which cut was most popular, he said without hesitation the tagliata di manzo. It’s a boneless 8-ounce ribeye cap. All the steaks are cooked over the live wood fire grill and sliced in the kitchen. My tagliata was correctly cooked and served with a generous side of arugula salad, but strangely seemed to have gone nowhere near wood nor fire.

The restaurant space itself, despite the soaring windows, is long and narrow. It feels crowded with too many big tables that sat empty while smaller parties sat shoulder to shoulder. Service was well-intentioned, but so rushed.

And then there were the restrooms, often an indicator of hospitality. Avoid the singles by the bar with locks so unclear that I walked in on someone for a moment. The main restrooms behind the restaurant had working locks but were littered with plastic water bottles. You may want to go downstairs to the lobby restrooms managed by the hotel.

Funke has made Tre Dita the house of pasta, and he’s not always home, but clearly that can work. When I went, the legendary chef Jean Joho, formerly of Everest and now a partner, was at the pass. I hope this young restaurant rises to those heights, with the pasta maestro as an older chef mentoring that pass or another someday.

Tre Dita

401 E. Wacker Drive (in The St Regis Chicago hotel, 2nd floor)

Open: Restaurant daily 5 to 9:30 p.m. Bar Sunday to Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., cocktails until midnight; Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m., cocktails until 1 a.m.

Prices: $11 (schiacciata bianca), $27 (pici cacio e pepe), $36 (gnudi di spinaci), $42 (tagliatelle al ragù), $76 (tagliata di manzo), $19 (tiramisù classica), $26 (Tre cocktail)

Noise: Conversation-friendly

Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible by elevator with restrooms on single level

Tribune rating: Very good to excellent, two and a half stars

Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

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