Warmth in service and surroundings pervades every minute of your visit to socca, the new hot stop in Lakeview. Met cheerily at the entrance and conveyed along a dark wooded bar area to your left, you'll arrive at the host stand to smiles and a genuine feeling of hospitality. socca's interior, formerly a neighborhood gay bar, has been re-imagined as a boisterous Euro-bistro with brick-red walls, dark wood wainscoting and floors, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Its unpretentious style, casual yet elegant, inspires a palpable joi d'vivre in the diverse diners that pack cheek by jowl into its spacious dining room, sometimes raising the noise level into the realm of the uncomfortably loud, but I dare you to mind once the food is in front of you.
socca's menu sticks closely to French/Italian bistro classics, with an occasional fanciful flight. Standard appetizers such as onion soup and garlicky steamed mussels stand alongside imaginative creations such as light and flavorful seared haloumi cheese served on a bed of spring greens with roasted red peppers and tasty vinaigrette. A range of sharing-size pizzettes would make a satisfying meal on their own.
The rather minimal entree list includes a traditional roast chicken, steak frites, several fish dishes and the standout grilled pork chops with braised greens and white bean ragu. Pastas such as seafood tagliatelle in spicy tomato sauce and gnocchi with chicken, asparagus and baby spinach are served up in hearty portions, best when washed down with a glass of one of socca's French, Italian or American wines. Sinful creme brulee and croissant bread pudding beckon from the dessert menu.
Service, when present, is great, and thorough explanations of the menu and wine list are given cheerfully. The one caveat is timing. On a weekend night you may be abandoned for long stretches while your server tends to numerous other tables. Chalk it up to the new restaurant's wild popularity, and hope that such irritations will clear up in time, because socca is poised to become a favorite in Lakeview.
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: Emilie Zanger