1-STAR DINING REVIEW

Needs more pow

RPM has the look, the energy, the star-studded ownership — and the inconsistent kitchen

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I've had this "Groundhog Day" feeling lately. I keep running into new restaurants — Tavernita, Nellcote — in which generally intelligent and well-executed food is presented in a cocktails-driven, loud and pulsating nightclub atmosphere.

I could ignore them all, of course, but the packed dining rooms and even more-packed lounges tell me that these restaurants are very much of the moment. So I fight for a reservation, endure the occasional indignity of being the Oldest Dude in the Room, and take solace in the fact that my companions and I are generally fed well.

With RPM Italian, I hit my nitropub (see sidebar for explanation) trifecta. And I'm not going to whine overly about the noise and glitz distractions, because it's not RPM's fault that I went to Nellcote and Tavernita first and am tired of restaurants in which everybody is better-looking than me. (Where are the mutants dining these days? I want to hang with them for a while.)

Nestled in the space that for years was home to Ben Pao (it even retained Ben Pao's phone number), RPM Italian packs considerable star power. Its monogrammed name combines the names of its principal driving forces: Rancic, as in Bill and Giuliana, who have chronicled RPM's development on their eponymous reality TV show; Psaltis, as in Doug, the restaurant's executive chef, possessed of a deep and impressive resume; and Melman, as in RJ, Jerrod and Molly, the Rich Melman offspring, who seem bent on River North restaurant domination with this operation, Paris Club and Hub 51, with one more (the country bar-barbecue concept Bub City) on the way.

The huge (8,000 square feet) space is broken more or less in half between a 100-seat, black-and-gray lounge with a massive island bar, and an elegant, 120-seat dining room in black and cream. Large spaces in the dividing wall allow some of the lounge's energy to bleed into the dining space, but, on my visits at least, the noise level wasn't oppressive.

There's clearly a see-and-be-seen element to RPM, but paradoxically, it's the Melman sibs' least-clubby concept to date, if only because there's no actual nightclub here, no attached, bottle-service operation like Studio Paris or Sub 51. I like the way the front room runs; servers, nattily attired in white waiter jackets, black ties and black slacks, are intelligent and observant, and know the menu inside and out — a definite plus for those of us navigating RPM's 70-item, 17-subhead document.

Much of the menu consists of quick-hit, small-plate nibbles, and prices vary enough that keeping an eye on the right-hand column is a judicious strategy. The simple, small-bite cicchetti are good bets: Pasta trombas, a crunchy-cheesy fried-dough bar snack (inspired by Bugles chips, Psaltis says) are fun; the Peppadew peppers stuffed with aged provolone are just lively enough; and the prosciutto- and fontina-stuffed arancini offer perfect creamy-crunchy balance. Flatbread pizzette, particularly the version bearing charred pepperoni slices and a spicy tomato sauce, are very nice for $7; I'd sooner pop for two of these than spend $16 for the lobster caprese, a sort of luxury version of the classic Italian salad.

Pastas are the menu's main thrust, and there are some excellent choices here. My favorite is the simplest: spaghetti cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper), the noodles tossed with black pepper and creamy caciocavallo cheese. But I'd make room on the table for the squid-ink pasta with chunks of king crab — the black-and-white composition is a perfect match for the room — and radiatore in creamy pecorino sauce with fennel-rich wild-boar sausage and cavolo nero greens.

There are steaks and chops — high in quality and price — which, Psaltis says, people often split. If you're so inclined, the veal chop is just about perfect — great flavor, minimally seasoned — and the lamb shank is large enough to share among several companions.

Unfortunately, the kitchen has more than its share of stumbles. The menu touts the prime meatballs, a trio that arrives in a virtual sea of tomato sauce, but my toes failed to curl. Grilled octopus was fine but unremarkable in texture or flavor, and for $15, it should have been. Roman-style fried artichokes taste great, especially with that lemon aioli, but they need to be crispier and/or to arrive to the table sooner. Duck agnolotti and gnocchi with asparagus were surprisingly lacking in flavor. The only truly wrong dish was the Brussels sprouts salad, an underseasoned jumble of leaves that completely overwhelmed its sliced-avocado co-star; the other disappointments were more a matter of unrealized potential.

Desserts are appropriately simple. House-made gelato comes packed into finger-sized cones, delivered four at a time, and there's a satisfying, rich tartufo of chocolate crunch-covered hazelnut gelato with a chocolate sorbetto center. My favorite dish: a plate of roasted, quartered figs shares a plate loaded with broken amaretto cookies, tufts of whipped mascarpone and drizzles of honey. It's perfect.

There's a user-friendly wine list, the 90 or so bottles organized by weight and flavor profile; the wines are heavily Italian but not exclusively so, and the wide price range includes a good number of modest figures. Well-crafted, $11 cocktails offer interesting options ($1 of each order goes to charity) including a light and refreshing Lower Door, which I ordered a couple of times.

RPM Italian has its moments, no question; it will have considerably more moments once the kitchen produces more consistently.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.

RPM Italian

52 W. Illinois St.; 312-222-1888; rpmitalian.com
Tribune rating: One star
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Small plates $3-$16, large plates $16-$38
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