Quartino’s John Coletta

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“Where wine is cheaper than water.”

Neapolitan thin-crust pizza. Small plates menu. True Italian vibe. No wonder Chicagoans have fallen in love with this Italian restaurant and wine bar. Quartino Executive Chef/Managing Partner John Coletta has taken the best that Italy has to offer and compiled a menu that transports diners to Italy. With pastas, cured meats and cheese made from scratch, delicious wine from Italy and a check average that’s arguably the best value in town, I had to find out more about the mind behind this dynamic dining experience that attracts 10,000 to 20,000 customers a week.

You have a passion for the restaurant business. How’d you get into it?
The first step was learning to cook from my mother and father. But my passion for food and wine was catapulted forward when I apprenticed at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

The wine/food at Quartino is so affordable.
Here’s the secret (laughs). We’re in Italy three or four times a year, meeting with producers and bringing in wines directly. We source them, taste them and arrange to make financial commitments on quantity. On the food side, we make pasta, artisanal salumi (Italian cured meats), cheese, et cetera, in-house so we don’t have to charge $50 for a plate of salumi.

Best professional advice you’ve received?
I’ll never forget. I was a young apprentice at the Waldorf Astoria. It was a Sunday and we were eating at the chef’s table. Around this table was this illustrious group of chefs from all around the world, talking about how you need to apply the same enthusiasm and focus to ‘grand cuisine’ as you do to everyday food. They said, ‘In the best of times you eat foie gras, caviar and lobster and drink Champagne; in challenging times you eat pasta and pizza and drink Prosecco. All of them have their own significance and importance.’

Favorite hidden dining gem?
Spacca Napoli. Jonathan [Goldsmith] is brilliant. And the best part is he’s not Italian. But eating the pizza, you close your eyes and feel like you’re in Naples.

Greatest extravagance?
In 1995, I purchased a limited edition cookbook – Auberge de l’Ill by Paul Haeberlin, Jean-Pierre Haeberlin and Marc Haeberlin. It’s number 542 with only 1,200 copies printed worldwide – the story of two Alsatian brothers who built a culinary monument in Alsace, France. The recipes are detailed and disclose the coveted secrets to their unique cuisine. The cost of the book was excessive; I’m embarrassed to mention the price, however, I’ll say I paid more than $1,000. I never had the opportunity to work at Auberge de l’Ill and wanted to know how to make the infamous salmon soufflé. Now I know!

Who’s the greatest love of your life?
My wife of 28 years, Jenifer, and our two children Olivia and Christian. Jenifer has supported, encouraged, advised and – in many instances – disagreed with family and career directions I’ve taken. She’s a wonderful wife and mother. She guides the lives of our children while allowing them to flourish into there unique yet diverse personalities. The life of a passionate chef is filled with many challenges, always embraced by Jenifer, allowing for a seamless experience and conclusion. The support exercised by Jenifer has allowed me to evolve and develop. Her insight is flawless.

Your greatest achievement?
I’ve had many personal and professional achievements. It’s very difficult to say which is my absolute greatest achievement without discounting others. They’ve all been rooted in a deep passion, focus and determination to succeed. I also believe my greatest achievement hasn’t been achieved yet.

Share your most marked characteristic.
Since age 15, I’ve been consumed by a curiosity for food. I have an insatiable desire to seek greater knowledge, pleasure and surprise in cooking.

Last but not least, favorite cookbook?
La Mia Nuova Grande Cucina Italiana by Gualtiero Marches (1980). Although it’s dedicated to new approaches to the Italian kitchen, the strong roots and fiber of the Italian kitchen are never compromised.

You know our favorite cookbook? 250 True Italian Pasta Dishes by John Coletta.

Sarah Levy

About Sarah Levy Imberman

Sarah Levy delighted millions as the owner and proprietor of Sarah's Pastries & Candies, one of Chicago's most popular confectionaries since its opening in 2004. A graduate of Northwestern University and the French Pastry School, Ms. Levy is the author of Sweetness: Delicious Baked Treats for Every Occasion and the winner of the Food Network Challenge. She’s been featured in USA TodayBetter Homes and Gardens and the Chicago Tribune, among many others. Ms. Levy's now doing business as S. Levy Foods, and is a leader in the airport food concession business.