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Best Roast Chicken in Chicago: Confessions of a Cholesterol Counter

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I am the stick in the mud when I try a new restaurant. While friends busily pore over a new menu trying to make sense of inventive flavor combinations or exotic ingredients - and let's face it, this has gotten to be a far bigger task than it ever was - I am usually scanning for something more familiar. Even if I flirt with the not-to-be-missed dish mentioned in some recent review, on my first outing, my eye goes invariably to the simplest and most traditional item on the menu: Roasted chicken. I like to see how a chef executes the basics first.

Excited as I may be by some new hot spot, I am happy to be left out of friends' elaborate dish-sharing plans and willing to endure their invisible eye rolling about my now well-known proclivity. But I still feel the need to take the edge off exempting myself from their fun, so I almost always quip that I am writing a book about the best roasted chicken. To keep my credibility, I figured it's about time to share what I have for the "chapter" on Chicago.

It's really a simple story. There's only one place I have found where the chicken is so perfectly seasoned and so reliably moist that I simply cannot get myself to move beyond it to try other things on the menu, as I eventually do in return visits. I admit this with the greatest of ambivalence because sharing this knowledge will only make it harder to get a last minute reservation at this Lincoln Park gastronomic gem. But if your taste runs to traditional comfort food as good as grandma's, or like me - it's the occupational hazard of a pastry chef - you are working on keeping your cholesterol under 200, you will not feel you missed a great meal if you check out the Galletto alla Diavola at Riccardo Trattoria on Clark Street.

The chicken - actually it's a Cornish hen - is sublime in its simplicity. Riccardo Michi, who presided over the kitchen at Bice before opening his Trattoria, has a nearly perfect touch with garlic and spices. Flattened, lightly marinated, seared, and then finished in the oven, the hen at Riccardo's is always crisp on the outside but moist within. It is never overpowered by lemon, rosemary, or bitter garlic.

Riccardo serves the hen with a handful of Tuscan fries, also crisp on the outside but tender within. He seems to be one of the only guys in town who knows how to serve these that way. Add to the plate some sauteed rapini, and you have as good a meal as you could ever concoct with the ingredients du jour and an almost guilt-free night out.

Much as I crave this particular roasted bird, there are some good runners up. Before switching my allegiance to Riccardo's, I was a longtime devotee of the bird at Coco Pazzo Cafe. But the chef wielded a bit too heavy a hand with the sage and over time the dish acquired a slightly medicinal taste, even when I asked to lighten the sage. For a time, I was also wed to Tufano's in Little Italy, but it proved to be variously dry and not lemony enough on return visits. Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square convinced me, for a bit, as well. The chicken is well brined and always moist. But much of the flavor comes from the creamy mushroom ragout and onion frites with which it is served. For someone who just wants an honest roast chicken or hen, Riccardo's oven has no peer in Chicago.

Apparently I am not the first to have discovered the beguiling pleasure of the roasted hen at Riccardo's. On more than one occasion, with the waiter waiting knowingly for my order, I have succumbed to this dish's relentless hold on me only to find that Riccardo had already run out of the hens. And mind you, this was not at 9 pm, at which point I would have borne my disappointment with a greater sense of justice.

In fairness, the consolation prizes at Riccardo's are as good as the Cornish hen, or at least what I have been compelled to taste when the Galletto runs out. My advice to you, though, is to get there early if you want to taste the Galletto. Why wait? This hen is worth adjusting your internal clock for.