Phil Vettel reviews Il Porcellino

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CHICAGO, Ill. -- One of restaurateur Rich Melman's gifts, I think, is his ability to identify niches, up and down the dining price scale, and fill them. The same mind that created Ambria, Everest and Avanzare also came up with Mon Ami Gabi, Tucci Benucch and Frankie's Scaloppine.

Apparently there's a gene for that sort of thing, because it's been passed down to his children, who have become serious restaurateurs in their own right. The three (RJ, Jerrod and Molly Melman), who already have the refined RPM Italian in their portfolio, went rustic-Italian to create Il Porcellino, which opened mid-March a block away from RPM Italian and just steps from the siblings' first venture, Hub 51.

In creating Il Porcellino, the Melmans bid adieu to Paris Club, the previous restaurant in this space, which had itself replaced Brasserie Jo a few years back. (The concepts change, but the phone number remains the same; I've dined at this address so many times that 595-0800 is as locked into my memory as the number for Empire Carpet.)

I don't know if Il Porcellino is the least-expensive serious restaurant in River North, but it sure feels like it. Pastas, made in house, run from $14.95 to $16.95 in a neighborhood that charges $15 to valet your car. Signature cocktails are $12 or less (again, not bad for this ZIP code), including the "Goodfellas"-inspired Jimmy Two Times. (I really like that cocktail, really like it.)

Wines are giddily affordable; all but three bottles are less than $60. If you really want to save, the "chianti del giorno," in a genuine fiasco (those straw-wrapped round bottles), goes for about $27. (Perhaps as a reminder, empty fiaschi bottles decorate the dining-room ceiling.)

"It's not easy to find a great chianti in a fiasco," said RJ Melman, "but we found a few we like."

Executive chef Doug Psaltis oversees the operation, as he does for the rest of the Melman-siblings restaurants, but day-to-day cooking falls to chef de cuisine Craig Degel, plucked from Eataly's Baffo. (Baffo was a refined Italian dining room that recently closed; Il Porcellino's future looks considerably rosier.)

You'll pony up five or six bucks for bread, and you won't be disappointed. A large, bowl-shaped loaf of garlic ciabatta boasts a crusty exterior and soft interior, helped along by liquid butter (added tableside) and a sprinkling of herbs. Tuscan cheese bread, with its crisped bottom and tomato-and-cheese topping, eats like a stealth pizza.

Appetizers range from well-executed cliches, such as stuffed mushrooms, fried calamari and meatballs (the surprisingly light meatballs are worth your time), to more thoughtful dishes, such as tuna carpaccio, roasted artichoke and cheese-sprinkled fried Brussels sprouts. Buttery mozzarella and gently acidic tomatoes make the Caprese salad, which will be a great selection as long as tomato season lasts.

Pastas, in addition to being a bargain, are extremely good. Orecchiette tossed with fennel sausage and broccolini is a hit, as was my pork-filled ravioli (since changed to pork tortellini), but the feather-light gnocchi Bolognese might be the best dish on the menu. The 1,000-layer lasagna is the Tuesday entry on Il Porcellino's daily specials; it's a massive portion (enough for two, easily), but too-limp noodles doomed my version. Stick to the regular pasta offerings, and you'll be much happier.

Secondi include a boneless brick-chicken Vesuvio that is a well-seasoned, classic version with the requisite peas and roasted potatoes. (I prefer bone-in chicken, but more and more customers prefer the easy-to-slice version.) A hefty piece of salmon is seasoned with plenty of oregano and black pepper, alongside sauteed kale. The flavor is fine on both dishes, and both of them were slightly overcooked.

On Sundays, there's a set-price ($30 or so; it varies) Sunday Supper consisting of bread, salad, antipasti, pastas and entree, served family-style.

Desserts are wheeled to the table on a little cart (no easy feat when the dining room is crowded), which displays two tiramisu (one with a chocolate-banana bottom layer), lemon cookies, biscotti and the star: the zuccherati, a cannoli-shaped brioche doughnut filled with sweetened mascarpone. The chocolate-hazelnut semifreddo, a tall wedge with chocolate sauce and crushed hazelnuts, is plenty big enough for two.

The charming dining room features brick and wood-paneled walls. Glass doors swing open in warm weather, creating an open-air cafe for the front tables. At the very back of the room is a corner booth that looks inspired by Booth One in the original Pump Room (which Melman pere managed for a time), complete with vintage celebrity photos. "A lot of (the pictures) are from my dad's life," RJ Melman said. "The booth is an homage to him."

An eclectic music mix plays at a conversation-friendly volume. There are plenty of Sinatra and Sinatra-era tunes, mixed with R&B and Motown. One night the playlist went from "Too Darn Hot" to "Ain't No Woman Like the One I've Got," and from "I've Got the World on a String" to "Mustang Sally." Nice.

Il Porcellino literally means "little pig" and refers to a bronze statue in Florence, Italy. Legend has it that good luck will follow those who rub the pig's snout, and to that end, a replica of the statue sits by Il Porcellino's door. Consider rubbing the little fella on the way out; you might grab a little luck, and it doesn't look as if this restaurant needs any.