Note: Al Primo Canto is no longer in business. We’re leaving this article online for archival purposes.
Over 1.3 million Italians immigrated to the south and southwest regions of Brazil between the 1880s and the 1910s, preserving many of their culinary traditions and creating some new ones along the way. Passarinhada, a grilled bird concoction prepared on special occasions in Brazilian-Italian communities, was a tradition that had to change after wild bird hunting was banned in the 1940s.
The wild bird was replaced with galeto al primo canto. Galeto means young chicken, and al primo canto translates into something like “to first sing,” meaning they had to be culled just as they were old enough to crow to ensure tenderness. As Italians emigrated northward they spread this new tradition around the country through restaurants known as galeterias, which also serve pasta and other Italian staples; many offer a smaller, less overwhelming version of the Brazilian steakhouse smorgasbord.
The concept was brought to Chicago in 2007 by Georges Elbekai, whose previous restaurant experience ranged from Latin (Carnivale) to Middle Eastern (Semiramis). Married to a Brazilian, he discovered galeterias while visiting his wife’s family and had a 10-feet long brick oven rotisserie imported for authenticity; he started out offering a fixed-price menu only but later added numerous a la carte options.
Elbekai’s effort shows in Al Primo Canto, where the wooden decor effectively reproduces the cozy ambiance of a traditional galeteria. If you know the real deal, though, the soundtrack may sound a bit dissonant to your ears; instead of southern folk music, you get mainstream Brazilian music — lots of bossa nova and Caetano Veloso.
We started with mushroom bruschetta, with was rich in flavor (goat cheese plus white truffle oil) but needed more mushrooms. That was more than made up for with the free house appetizer — a basket of pão de queijo (cheese rolls). They came shaped like small cupcakes rather than in the usual format, but they were cheesier and moister than average.
Galeto al primo canto is a tricky specialty to pull off — crunchy on the outside but tender in the middle. On this night it was about 80% on target; the crunchy exterior was perfect, but it was dryer on the inside than it should have been. On the other hand, the chicken parmesan was just right, melt-in-your-mouth tender and complemented by (rather than overwhelmed by) marinara sauce.
Both dishes came with a baked potato and a vegetable medley, which is definitely a concession to local palates; the traditional accompaniments in a Brazilian galeteria would have been along the lines of polenta, a radicchio salad, either rice or spaghetti, and possibly some farinha (manioc flour). Fried polenta is an old favorite so I just had to order it on the side; it was cut in thin slices that gave it a French fry-like appearance, and it was very flavorful, with parmesan baked in.
The dessert menu offered several Italian staples and an interesting variation on Romeu e Julieta, which in Brazil is just some guava paste combined with a slice of cheese, both of which can come right out of your fridge; here it was guava cake with mascarpone sauce.
As for the drinks, there was an extensive wine list, but none of it was Brazilian. So we tried the caipirinha and its vodka-based cousin, caipiroska. We also sampled the strawberry caipirinha, which purists might say is not caipirinha at all but we had no quibbles with it.
So is this an authentic restaurant? I’d have to say no. What it does is take the galeteria experience and tweak it just enough to make it less alien to Midwestern tastes.
A second Al Primo Canto opened in River North last year and couldn’t hold its own against the numerous Brazilian steakhouses in the area, closing four months ago. So to experience Al Primo Canto you’ll need to travel to Edgebrook in the far Northwest Side (accessible by Metra), but it’s worth the trip. If you’re Brazilian there’s more than enough here to give you a taste of home, and if you’ve never been to a galeteria then get ready for a unique culinary adventure; the menu is huge and requires several visits to appreciate.