A new pastificio has come to Chicago and it’s rethinking everything we know about restaurant models.
Dario Monni may have an extensive background in fine dining and mixology but his lifelong dream has always been to open up a pastificio (fresh pasta shop) reminiscent of his childhood in Italy. Growing up in a family of shepherds, butchers, and cheese mongers, Monni’s days were often dusted with flour and scented with tomato sauce.
“My grandma from my mother’s side was making pasta every Saturday for lunch,” he says to me in a lilting Italian accent tinged with nostalgia and joy. “I was the only one to show up three hours early because I was curious to see how she was making the fresh pasta and fresh sauce,” Monni laughs.
In particular, Monni vividly remembers the color of the egg shells—a reddish hue—as they would crack and release into what he describes as a “beautiful bouquet of white flour.” He pauses and then continues simply. “That is my memory.”
Monni cherishes the simple times of his childhood but it was his young adult years that built the foundation for his business acumen.
“Everything I did, I learned by myself,” he explains. “I didn’t have any support economically, so I left when I was a teen without money.”
At 18 years old, Monni found himself in London with no funds, no job, and no English-speaking skills.
“There was no technology,” he recalls. “I was bringing my resume and knocking on every door. I didn’t speak English but I was a quick learner and I grew up very fast.”
As luck would have it, Monni got a job washing glasses at the generational legend, Cipriani. “It was the only place I was allowed to work because I only spoke Italian and about seventy percent of them were Italian speakers.”
That he was a teenager working at one of the world’s most renowned restaurants was not lost on Monni. Teaching himself to speak English by listening to the radio and watching television, Monni began to assert himself as a valuable employee.
“I pushed myself to work 15 hours a day with no days off because I needed the money. London was extremely expensive.” Those 15-hour days got a lot longer when factoring his hour-long, one-way commute. “I had a lot of fire to learn. People saw that and pushed me to the bar.”
At the elbow of highly trained mixologists, Monni fell in love with bartending.
“I met so many people,” he enthuses. “The drink industry allowed me to jump into the market.”
And jump in he did—with both feet. For nine years, Monni traveled across the world, running beverage programs at luxury restaurants and nightclubs from Dubai to Montreal. In 2012, Monni journeyed back to London where he led an award-winning bar concept for L’Anima—another highly acclaimed Italian restaurant. It was during this time that he met his wife Jill Gray, a Chicago native and advertising executive.
Through all his travels and training, Monni consistently ensured that he also spent time working directly in kitchens and also in front of house positions.
“Always, in my heart, I knew that food was what I loved most,” he admits. “When I think of myself and my past, the memory that always comes back to me is food…those smells…”
He shared his dreams with Gray, who was immediately supportive and equally passionate. In 2016, the couple moved back to Chicago to grow roots. Today, they have two sons and a pastificio that has established itself as a heavy hitter in the Chicago restaurant scene.
Tortello’s basis is fresh, handmade pasta (which sells out on a daily basis). To ensure ultimate authenticity and quality, Tortello only uses premium ingredients that are imported directly from Italy. When it comes to poultry, Monni worked for years to establish a relationship with a Wisconsin poultry farmer to produce eggs that have the same reddish hue as the ones he remembers from his childhood. They achieve this by feeding the hens a custom-made, vegetable-based diet.
“I come from a country where the pasta has to be the best and the sauce has to be the best,” Monni says, with what I imagine is, a definitive shrug. “So, we have a commitment to make everything in house…which is a lot of labor and a lot of time. We invest in high quality ingredients and, so far, people seem to recognize it. It makes me extremely happy.”
Of course, Tortello also has a stellar wine program which includes Italy’s best, along with natural wines, and wines from female vintners.
While these high standards are starting to become more of a norm in cities with cultivated dining scenes, Tortello is set apart by the model it chose—an affordable, counter service, family restaurant.
“I don’t believe that counter service needs to be associated with bad service,” he emphasizes. “It’s the future of the restaurant industry. People love simplicity.”
Based on the sheer labor, the cost of ingredients, the neighborhood (Wicker Park), and the quality of the food, Monni could have easily branded this venture as a fine dining restaurant. But that was never his goal.
“I wanted to build a community,” he says. “Our margins are extremely small and we have tough competition but I wanted to bring a bit of European style to Chicago. Chicago is a beautiful city and it needs something casual that is extremely high quality and a community environment. People can buy the pasta and the sauce and go home and cook or they can dine with us. It’s the European way.”
For Monni, food is the common language he speaks to share tales of his upbringing and culture.
“Tortello is a labor of love,” he continues. “I work 15 hours a day, I see my family less but I really love being here. I’m the owner so I’m here all the time. I love seeing and meeting people and telling them about Tortello. There’s the fire inside of me that allows me to make my dream come true.”
In animated fashion, he describes the regulars that come in with their family members of all ages.
“There’s nothing better than that and the satisfaction of building this from scratch,” he lets out a joyful sigh. “We have regulars coming in twice a week. Yesterday, I saw five tables with 7 to 10 kids all eating the pasta with such pleasure. I don’t think there’s [anything] better than that. I might be naïve but I know one thing. If I can go to bed with my heart in peace, life is better.”