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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2004 10:42 am

Saputo’s gets better with each visit

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Photo by Aaron Westphal

There's a lot to be said for familiarity. Like a favorite old pair of boots you pull out of the back of the closet or a holiday movie you watch each year with your family, some things just make you feel better, and you never grow tired of them.

Saputo's is like that. The family-owned restaurant has been a downtown fixture for 56 years. Located across from City Hall, this corner eatery serves up southern-Italian food made from recipes passed down for several generations. Founded by Frank and Florine Saputo, the restaurant is now owned by daughter Sandy Coffey and her husband, Mike. The Coffeys' son, Mike Jr., serves as restaurant manager. He and his parents make most of the dishes on the menu, including the red pasta sauce, which is a customer favorite.

"Everything is homemade," says Mike Coffey Jr. "Every recipe is a family recipe."

Regular customers -- and they are many -- know that when they order the breaded Sicilian steak with garlic juice or the baked lasagna with meatballs, it's going to taste just as it did last time they had it.

Although the family emphasizes tradition, Saputo's now offers lighter dishes as well, including chicken and peppers, grilled pork chops, and breaded pork chops. Though not on the menu, they're available for such regulars as Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who likes to eat healthier these days, Coffey says.

Thanks to its location, Saputo's is popular with politicians and government workers. But it's also close to the convention center and two downtown hotels, which bring tourists and out-of-towners. Visitors find the restaurant's interior, highlighted by red-and-green-striped wallpaper, warm and inviting. A vintage neon sign adds charm to the outside of the brick building.

"We're a unique place because we have such a cross-section of customers," Coffey says. "People can come in a suit and tie or jeans and feel comfortable either way."

I have dined at Saputo's several times, and I've liked it better each time. At first, I almost felt like an outsider because many regular customers are on a first-name basis with the waitstaff. On one visit, a woman sitting at the table next to mine with a group of people walked up to the bar and got a glass of blue cheese-stuffed olives. She obviously knew that the bartender would accommodate her request. The olives looked delicious and made me wish I knew the staff as well as she did.

Several good Italian restaurants in town do certain things just as well as Saputo's, if not better. (The homemade breads at La Sorella and the fried calamari at Tuscany come to mind -- and the view at Capisce! can't be beat.) But that isn't what Saputo's is all about. If you want family atmosphere and consistently good comfort food, nobody does it better than Saputo's.

A great way to enjoy Saputo's at its best is the Italian Favorites Dinner, which is served with a choice of ravioli, lasagna, spaghetti, mostaccioli, or rigatoni with meatballs or sausage for $12.95. It comes with a small plate of antipasti (olives, salami, peppers, and cheese), salad, and bread. On a recent Saturday, my husband ordered mostaccioli and sausage; I got the baked ravioli and meatballs.

The antipasto plate, a tasty way to start the meal, made me wish for a larger sampling. (A heartier version, the Saputo's antipasto platter, can be ordered as an appetizer, for $10.75.) The house salad was standard fare that would have benefited from the addition of a few peppers or olives for more texture and taste.

I chose the baked ravioli in two varieties: cheese and meat. The baked version came with an extra layer of mozzarella cheese on top, which is the best way to enjoy this dish -- or any Italian dish, in my opinion. I preferred the cheese variety, but both were delicious. Two large meatballs, which were flavorful and added just the right amount of spice to the pasta, topped the dish of melted goodness. The sausage was even better. I recommend ordering either one with any pasta dish.

The menu offers a wide variety of items, including seafood, sandwiches, pizza, and salads. Basic Italian dishes include several chicken dishes: Parmigiana, cacciatore, and fried. Seafood options include shrimp scampi, breaded shrimp, salmon, and Parmigiana breaded cod. You can also order from an à la carte menu and choose from baked or homemade ravioli, lasagna, rigatoni, mostaccioli, or baked fish with meat sauce. Pasta dishes include spaghetti with oil and garlic, spaghetti with butter and garlic, linguini with clam sauce, fettuccine Alfredo with chicken, fettuccine with shrimp, homemade green noodles, manicotti, tortellini Alfredo, and pasta prima vera with fresh broccoli served with a white cream or oil-and-garlic sauce.

Appetizers include minestrone soup, anchovy bread, cheese bread, toasted ravioli, escargot, antipasti, and onion rings. I have ordered the toasted ravioli, which tasted like overfried pockets of air. Next time I'll try the onion rings or soup, both of which were being enjoyed at a nearby table and looked good.

For lunch, or for a lighter meal, Saputo's offers poor-boy sandwiches and salads, including anchovy and olive. For dessert, try the homemade cannoli.

Saputo's is located at 801 E. Monroe St.; 544-2523. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 5-11 p.m. Sat., and 5-10 p.m. Sun. Banquet facilities and takeout are available.

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