Photos by Nathan Michael, courtesy of DeNucci’s

The RundownChicago

DeNucci’s Hits All the Italian American High Notes


The red sauce renaissance is here. From Elina’s to Fioretta, new Italian-American joints are popping up all over the city. The latest slinger of spaghetti and meatballs? DeNucci’s in Lincoln Park, from the team behind nearby neighborhood favorite Gemini. 

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that what people want right now is comfort: big plates meant to share, ideally loaded with tomato sauce and melty cheese. “Guests who choose Italian American restaurants know what they’re going to get,” says parent group Ballyhoo Hospitality’s CEO Ryan O’Donnell. And indeed, that reliability is part of DeNucci’s charm: There aren’t any magic tricks or wild flourishes when it comes to their linguine with clams or pappardelle genovese, but when they show up, they deliver exactly what you crave. 

That doesn’t mean a meal at DeNucci’s won’t be exciting. In fact, sitting outside with a negroni in hand, lulled by the ambient bustle of people at the bar, while a plate of chicken parm is placed in front of you by a friendly waiter eager to chat about his 18-year-old dog can be downright thrilling. Sound like your kind of night? Here’s everything you need to know.

DeNuccis' tagliatelle Bolognese
Tagliatelle Bolognese, but of course.
DeNuccis' tagliatelle Bolognese
Tagliatelle Bolognese, but of course.

Italian American classics drive the food menu… 

The DeNucci’s menu is packed with red sauce heavy hitters, from the garlic-parmesan knots made with Sal’s pizza dough (more on that later) to the fried calamari. Don’t sleep on the olive oil-slicked bruschetta, which comes smothered with a bright pesto, or the artichoke Vesuvio that neatly balances salty, crunchy, creamy, and smooth components. 

Much of the pasta is imported from Italy, though a few are made in-house, like the twirlable tagliatelle Bolognese and lobster ravioli. There’s also a play on Nonna’s Sunday gravy, a typical Italian American family-style dish, created for the restaurant’s namesake, neighborhood wiseguy Joseph DeNucci. This version, Ragu alla Joe, has pasta with red sauce, braciole, meatballs, and Italian sausage. It’s recognizable from afar. 

As for mains, you can have your veal or chicken cutlet how you want it: parmesan-ed, marsala-d, or piccatta-d, and daily-changing specials range from pork chops with peppers to osso buco. It all comes together as a sort of greatest-hits of the red sauce canon, with a massive helping of tiramisu to finish, seamlessly blending Italian flavors with American appetites. 

…and the drinks, too. 

While DeNucci’s wine list is all-Italian, the cocktails veer creative and trendy. Want a negroni? They have four, including one that’s frozen. Those looking for something a little less boozy may gravitate toward the aperitivo drinks, especially the refreshing Hugo with elderflower, Prosecco, and lots of mint. There are plenty of heavy-hitting cocktails, too, that find Italian and American ingredients happily co-mingling. The Paloma Italiano, for example, gets a bit of contratto, while the martini is made with olive oil-washed vodka. 

Grilled calamari, an alternative to fried.
Grilled calamari, an alternative to fried.

It’s fun to be here.

On a Thursday night just weeks into opening, the 150-seat room was already packed, giving DeNucci’s a lived-in feel. It’s casual and convivial, extending to the service, which is about as warm as it gets. Playful touches abound, including hand-drawn menu illustrations from Spanish artist Sandra Navarro, artwork declaring “Make Pizza Not War,” and a vintage rotary phone where you can “ring” for a negroni. 

Before DeNucci’s opened, this space was home to the popular neighborhood bar Four Farthings Tavern. O’Donnell and the Nathan Michael Design team wanted to maintain the homey feel of the previous tenant, and kept many of the pieces that made the tavern a neighborhood stalwart, including the vintage mirrors along the main dining room, a massive bronze chandelier over the bar, and the bar itself.  

“Since Four Farthings Tavern closed in 2019, people have been craving a replacement in the neighborhood,” says O’Donnell.  “I think people are grateful to have a place to hang their hat at the end of the day.”

New York-style pizza … in Chicago!
New York-style pizza … in Chicago!

Pizza by Sal > deep dish

Fighting words, but it’s true. Salvatore “Sal” Lo Cascio has already been slinging pies for Ballyhoo at Pizza By Sal in Wilmette, and now he’s expanding his reach here at DeNucci’s, with a dedicated pizza section on the menu. Lo Casio specializes in New York-style pies, with a chewy dough that’s proofed for 48 hours. The rest is simple: crushed California tomatoes and salt for the sauce, Grande East Coast mozzarella and whatever toppings you choose, finished with Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil, parmesan, and oregano. There’s also a gluten-free focaccia pizza, a recipe Lo Casio created for his gluten-intolerant wife during the pandemic. 

Like any old-school slice shop, your table will have a shaker of classic dusty Parmesan and a shaker for “Sal’s seasoning,” a proprietary blend of oregano, chili flakes, salt, dried parsley and more.  Do not skip this seasoning, which will make you feel like a kid grabbing a slice after school, only with (much) higher-quality ingredients. 

Pro tip: Don’t miss the pickup window.

If you’re in a hurry and still want a taste of DeNucci’s, order pizza to go. You won’t be the only one: That pick-up window is as busy as the bar, as hungry patrons pull up, grab a box, and head off to enjoy their good old-fashioned comfort food at home.

Ariel Kanter is a writer, editor, and culinary school grad living in Highland Park, IL. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Serious Eats, New York Magazine, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @arielkanter and subscribe to her newsletter here for her latest food and gifting recs. While you’re at it, follow Resy, too.