Chicago

Photo courtesy of Monteverde

The One Who Keeps the BookChicago

How To Nab a Seat at Monteverde, and What To Order Once You’re In

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No one does pasta like Monteverde does, and everybody seems to know it. The West Loop Italian charmer has cultivated an unusually large local following since it opened in late 2015, and is continuously booked weeks in advance. Now entering into its seventh year, the restaurant may no longer be a newcomer, but its food, drinks, and atmosphere are as impeccable today as when it first opened.

Helmed by chef Sarah Grueneberg, Monteverde racked up numerous accolades from the beginning and lingered on “best new restaurant” lists for quite some time — not only for the exceptional bowls of fresh pasta, but also because of the restaurant’s warm hospitality and welcoming atmosphere. And, of course, the elevated pastificio — “pasta factory” in Italian — that sits behind the bar, from which guests can watch pasta being handmade to order. 

This time on Resy’s ongoing series, The One Who Keeps The Books, we got the inside scoop from the folks at Monteverde on how to snag a seat with ease, and enjoy your meal like a pro. We sat down with managing partner and Monteverde expert Jaime Canete to ask for tips and tricks on getting a table, what to order, and how to have the best experience at Chicago’s favorite pasta factory.

Resy: How many seats are at Monteverde?

Canete: 110 seats inside and, with our extended patio, 50 seats outside.

When do reservations drop?

They go live online at midnight 30 days in advance. 

How quickly do reservations get booked?

They book up pretty quickly. Sometimes we get emails from people saying, “I stayed up ’til midnight but they were already gone.” It’s a pretty good-sized restaurant, but with our reputation, we are fortunate that people book far in advance. We get a lot of large groups through email instead of Resy just because we want to have a little more control for timing purposes. For groups of eight to 16 people, we generally ask them to do a prix fixe menu, where they can choose from the entire menu five to seven days in advance of their reservation date.  

Photo courtesy of Monteverde
Photo courtesy of Monteverde

If I have a large group, how far in advance should I book?

Depending on the time of the year, I would say three to six weeks in advance. Which seems like a long time, and I know a lot of people don’t plan ahead, but there are other people that do … it’s kind of feast or famine.

How long is the usual Resy Notify list?

The Notify list for this Saturday night right now is over 1,400 people at dinner, and for lunch, it’s at 160 people. So it’s pretty wild. I mean, you say that to anyone and they’re like, I don’t even know how to comprehend that. 1,400 people is literally 464 tables, which we just don’t have.

How many people end up getting seats from the Notify list? 

Truth be told, not that many. We toggle the reservations on and off, because we might have too many and not be able to take as many walk-ins as we like, and at the end of the day, we’re a neighborhood restaurant. Being in the West Loop, we want to be open to everyone, including the neighbors, who are our bread and butter on down nights like Tuesday or Wednesday.

How many turnarounds do you have?

Usually on a Friday and Saturday, we do two to three turns. If it’s a larger table, probably only two turns. But if it’s groups of two to five, probably three.

Are any seats (whether that be tables, bar, or patio) held for walk-ins?

Yes, our full bar, which can seat 16, is always walk-in friendly. We also save a select amount of tables indoors per night. Now with warmer weather in Chicago, over 75% of our patio tables are walk-in friendly as well. The first week of patio season, we made patio reservations available day-of, and they’re getting scooped up right away, probably by people from the Notify list.

Chef Sarah Grueneberg. Photo by Huge Galdones, courtesy of Monteverde
Chef Sarah Grueneberg. Photo by Huge Galdones, courtesy of Monteverde

Can customers grab a drink at the bar while they wait for a table? 

Yeah, absolutely. In addition to offering the full menu, you can do cocktails at the bar while you’re waiting for a table. There are also a couple of corners at the bar where we don’t have seats, and it’s more of a standing area where guests can enjoy drinks and watch the pasta being made behind the bar while they wait.

OK, so if I want to test my luck and snag a seat at the bar to have a bowl of gnocchi and a glass of wine, when should I get there and how long should I expect to wait on a busy night?

I would say probably within 15 to 45 minutes you would probably get a seat at the bar at a peak time. The bar fills up pretty quickly, but at the same time, bar guests tend to dine a little quicker than a table. We have a lot of neighbors that dine at the bar and they typically just walk right in. There is this rumor that it’s hard to get into Monteverde, but we take walk-ins every night. In the summertime we’ll accommodate upwards of 80 to 100 walk-ins a day. 

What would you say is the best seat in the house?

So, half of our restaurant is made up of high-top tables surrounding the bar. We don’t consider them bar seats, or bar tables, but they’re high because they look over the bar to see the pasta being made. And the pasta is not just for show. Any of the filled pastas we have on the menu (like tortellini or ravioli) are made to order. Chef Sarah had always wanted to make pasta to order after seeing it done in Italy. 

Is it possible to reserve a specific table and do folks ever request that?

Our company line is that we can’t guarantee a specific table. My own mother, for instance, is coming in tonight just by chance, and she’s like, oh, can I sit here, can I sit there? And I told her, I certainly know your requests but the restaurant is, like I said, a hustle-bustle. It’s very fluid. We don’t always know exactly how long people are going to be here. Some people dine in an hour and a half, others dine in three hours.  So there’s a lot of reasons why it’s not in our best interest to keep a specific table open longer than we really need to.

Burrata e ham, a must-order. Photo by Huge Galdones, courtesy of Monteverde
Burrata e ham, a must-order. Photo by Huge Galdones, courtesy of Monteverde

You guys close relatively early on weekdays — 9:30 p.m. Who are the late-night stragglers and what do you do with them?

I love that question, because that’s a very New York thing to say. Even though I love Chicago, one of the things I wish we had more of is a late-night scene like New York does. New York is obviously the city that never sleeps. But we are a very Midwestern city where people go to bed early. The restaurant is full by 5:30 or 5:45, which I think in New York, you wouldn’t even be open till 6 or 7. Before COVID, we were open until 10 or 10:30, but I think the pandemic has trained a lot of the public to dine earlier. At the very beginning [of the pandemic] when we were doing takeout only, all the orders came in before 7:30 and hardly anything after that.

You’re now serving Friday and Saturday brunch — how should I grab a seat?

Since year one, before COVID, we used to do lunches on Saturdays and Sundays, which were very successful and busy. Sarah loves a traditional brunch, but we didn’t want to create an entirely new menu just for brunch two days a week. We wanted to let people dine with us for pasta because we are known for that and people come far and wide for it. There are some lunchy-brunchy options on the lunch menu, and we do actually call it that, affectionately — lunchy-brunchy rather than a full brunch. But we book a lot of the reservations specifically for brunch online through Resy and see less walk-ins for lunch than we do for dinner service. 

What’s the busiest day and time?

Not surprisingly, the busiest day is Saturday, and the peak time is between 6 and 8 p.m. 6:30 is the sweet spot where a lot of people can snag a walk-in. It’s not as busy for reservations at that time because we actually stagger them so that we can be busier between 4:30 and 5:30, again from 7 to 8, and then again from 9 to 9:30. 

It’s a typical Saturday night at 7 p.m. Can you set the scene?

There’s a small line queued up to talk to the host team. The bar is full, and there are usually two people deep waiting for those bar seats to open up. Maybe if they have reservations, people have arrived early and are having cocktails while waiting to sit. Again, Midwesterners like to arrive early. The restaurant is full, it’s humming. The restaurant itself is very beautiful but also subtle, and the energy of the guests in the space is what makes it come to life. On those Saturdays in the summer when we have the doors and windows open, letting in fresh air, it feels really good and romantic. It feels like a place where you want to be.

Managing partner Jaime Canete. Photo by Huge Galdones, courtesy of Monteverde
Managing partner Jaime Canete. Photo by Huge Galdones, courtesy of Monteverde

How would you describe the menu, other than “pasta pasta pasta”?

In one word, we’re an Italian restaurant. But in one sentence, we are Italian at heart with a modern hand. It’s based on Sarah’s travels throughout Italy and other parts of Europe and Asia. Our menu has a lot of familiar dishes and familiar ingredients, but there’s also some different twists that will appease the folks who have dined with us many times and want something a little different or seasonal. There’s always a handful of dishes that can’t come off the menu because they’re so popular at this point that people would freak out. We also have a kids menu, so whether you’re three years old or 90, there’s something for everybody.

Does the menu change much? Should I expect to see specials?

Absolutely. We love to change the menu here. Sarah and the team work diligently to keep it fresh and moving. Of course this is the time of year where you start to see changes in the ingredients that farmers have. So right now we have ramps and asparagus, and we’ll soon have peas, strawberries, rhubarb, and favas. So we like to change it up because we want to make sure that we’re constantly elevating, constantly staying relevant for the future.

Once I’ve snagged a seat for dinner, what should I order?

Sarah will say she loves anything on a skewer, so right now, look for whatever skewer we have on our menu. Right now we have a wagyu skewer with salsa verde, grapefruit, and a little aioli — it’s delicious. The number one dish I think that should be on every table is the burrata e ham, which is our burrata from Puglia; tigelle, which are small round breads we make to order; a seasonal mostarda; and some really good prosciutto. You kind of make a little sandwich out of all the ingredients on the plate. Also our twist on cacio e pepe, we call Cacio Whey Pepe, is one of my favorites — instead of pasta water to emulsify the sauce, we use whey, which has a bright lemony zip to it, and then we add a four-kinds-of peppercorn blend on top.

And on your lunchy-brunchy menu, what should I order?

We have about six different dishes that are on that menu but not on the dinner menu. My two favorites are eggs in purgatory, which is a very typical Italian dish for breakfast made with eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. It comes with a honeyed chile toast that you can dip in the eggs. And then the chicken Parm burger is lights out. I think if it hasn’t gone viral yet, it needs to. There’s a ton of flavor and texture, and we make the bun from scratch. The meat is topped with burrata cheese and a spicy tomato sauce, fresh basil, a little giardiniera, and is served with crispy, sandy waffle fries. The sandy waffle fries are inspired by Tuscan sandy potatoes, which are potatoes roasted with rosemary and lemon, and tossed with bread crumbs. It’s pretty damn good.

Photo by Anthony Tahlier, courtesy of Monteverde
Photo by Anthony Tahlier, courtesy of Monteverde

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention dessert. What should I get?

There is one dessert on the menu that has been there since the very beginning: our butterscotch budino. What’s special about our take is that, unlike a lot of butterscotch recipes that use rum, we use a blended Scotch, which adds a bitterness and smokiness. Hence the name butterscotch. Sarah doesn’t personally like overly sweet desserts, so the butterscotch gives people the right balance of sweet and savory. We also like to change up the dessert seasonally. Right now strawberries and rhubarb are in season, and we’ll do a seasonal crostata, maybe with a mascarpone ice cream.

Are there any exciting new things happening at Monteverde right now?

Now, as we find ourselves in patio season and it’s getting busier, we’re doing these fun themed specials each month throughout the rest of the year that we’re calling Giro d’Italia. The program is inspired from a famous bike race in Italy where they bike through different regions, and we’ll be highlighting different specials that have ingredients from those regions each month. For example, Piedmont is known for truffles, so we’ll do that in December. We’ll focus on hotter regions in the summertime like Sardinia, Sicily, and Puglia. We’re very excited about it because it allows our chefs to be creative, and allows the guests to experience something different.

Is there anything else a guest should know?

We’re very fortunate to be a sought-after restaurant after all these years. We opened as a neighborhood spot doing pasta-to-order, which no one was really doing in the U.S., or at least not to the level we did. The first year and a half was quite a whirlwind of accolades and national recognition. After a couple years of being the best new restaurant, this and that, we were like, what are we going to do now that we’re not a new restaurant anymore? So we decided that we’re going to be a great restaurant and we’re going to be here a long time, hopefully. We have such a great team and we have a lot of people that have been with us since the very beginning, both in the front and back of the house, like servers and managers, as well as cooks that have worked their way up to become chef de cuisine. It’s super humbling. 

 

Elanor Bock is a Chicago born professional writer, dancer, and renaissance woman, excelling at philosophy, mathematics, outdoor adventuring, and balancing six martinis on a tray in a crowded bar. Like her dog Oli, she is highly motivated by treats. Follow her on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.