Joe Flamm has wanted to open his own restaurant since high school. He started working in the industry when he was 16, and has had stints at Art Smith’s Table 52, Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and Tony Mantuano’s Spiaggia, where he’s been the executive chef for the last five-and-a-half years. Not to mention, he pulled off a win on Top Chef season 15, got married, and had a baby along the way.
In August, that dream finally came to fruition when Flamm announced that he was leaving Spiaggia to start a restaurant of his own. His last day is September 30, less than a week away. When I spoke with him last week, he was excited, overwhelmed, but ready to start his next chapter.
“I’m grateful, I’m really excited but I feel really sad as well to let this place go,” he said. “It’s such a special place in my heart.”
His new restaurant will open in Chicago’s Fulton Market neighborhood by summer 2020. Flamm still isn’t ready to share the name yet. It’s something he wants to meditate on and be sure of, much like how he felt when his son Luka was born and he and his wife, Hillary, kept the name to themselves for a little while.
However, he did give us a rundown of the concept—and it’s not Italian. Well, not strictly Italian, at least. Instead, he likens it to Adriatic drinking food, based on Italian cuisine with a large Croatian influence. Hillary is Croatian, and he said he discovered the cuisine through her and her family. When they took a trip through the country right before Luka was born, that sealed the deal. He loved the roadside konobas (traditional Dalmatian taverns), where food is cooked over large charcoal grills; the smell reminded him of growing up in Chicago and summertime barbecues. As such, his restaurant will feature a large charcoal hearth in the middle of the room. He also wants to evoke the communal, lively atmosphere he experienced in the local restaurants.
“I want this place to feel the same as if you came to a party at my house,” Flamm said. “Super approachable and comfortable, that’s the biggest thing. You eat the food and it’s really technique-driven, but it’s a place where anyone feels they could come in and have really great food and fun wine. That community party atmosphere.”
The spread will be a mix of large plates and small plates, with seafood, game, and vegetable-focused dishes, depending on what’s seasonally available. Although the menu hasn’t been finalized yet, Flamm called out a few dishes he tried in Croatia that really stood out to him—black risotto with seafood; whole fish grilled over charcoal with crispy, salty skin; simple clam dishes; and meals with lamb, too, including a sandwich that wraps lamb and beef sausage in a fluffy pita-like bread. He also plans on experimenting with ajvar, a sweet and smoky condiment made from roasted peppers that’s popular all over the Balkans. (Pro tip: try it with fries.) Instead of the typical sweet peppers used in Croatia, Flamm might swap in local peppers, adding a U.S. touch to the sauce.
His beverage program will also lean Adriatic, featuring Croatian and Slovenian wine with some Italian influences. Flamm’s especially hyped about the wine, saying that he fell in love with how much effort and care Mantuano and Rachael Lowe, Spiaggia’s beverage director, put into Spiaggia’s own wine program while he was there. He told me it would be “impossible” for him to conceptualize something now without a stellar wine list. The restaurant will have a full cocktail menu, where Flamm could see a Croatian Amaro and classic Italian drinks happily living together.
While his last day at Spiaggia is ever-nearing and summer 2020 is a long way off, Flamm has a packed schedule in between. He and Hillary are traveling to Zagreb and Split the first week of October to do some research and development (read: a lot of eating), and he also teased that there might be pop-ups on the horizon for this yet-to-be-named restaurant, both in Chicago and other cities. They’ll be testing out dishes they’re workshopping, ultimately hoping to “beat the drum” for the new place.
Flamm said he's excited about being able to create a menu. As much as the dishes were his at Spiaggia, everything was within the restaurant’s box, he said. This is his chance to tell his own story, drawing on what he’s learned from his past experiences. The simplicity and Italian ideals of Spiaggia; strong flavor from working with Stephanie Izard. He’ll also have the support of his partners Kara Callero, Frank Callero, and Steven Zaleski, behind BLVD in West Loop. Kara used to do PR for Spiaggia when Flamm started at the restaurant—they’ve kept in touch over the years, and this collaboration was the right fit at the right time, he said. It was important for him to feel like he has a seat at the table for the restaurant, so they could do things their way. That includes veering away from fine dining too, instead creating a more casual and welcoming environment for his guests.
“I think it can be a little bit intimidating for some people to step into a fine dining restaurant—even for me,” he said. “I feel intimidated going into a lot of fine dining restaurants. To go back to something more casual, to be able to feel like I can cook for more of my friends and family and neighbors—that’s the most exciting part about it for me.”
Joe Flamm’s new restaurant is scheduled to open in summer 2020 in Chicago.