Caffe de Luca
With the year coming to a closing, I looked over the list of restaurants by ethnicity that I had so far. I checked my list and I checked it twice, so very Santa Clause of me. And I noticed a huge gap, a blaring omission, a travesty, the latter being an exaggeration. I had not journalled an Italian restaurant since I began my alphabet odyssey. Considering McDonalds, Subway, and Mexican are high on the list of exhausted restaurants in America, missing Italian was a colossal shock. So my End of Year Resolution was to do something about that.
My culinary adventured led me into Chicago’s Wicker Park to sample an Italian eatery that I figured would be a contrast to suburban delights like Olive Garden and Pizza Hut. Right off the main strip where you get an eyeful of 20-something characters in mismatch clothes, tussled hair, Converse high-tops, and jeans that are a bit too snug, is Caffe de Luca at 1721 N. Damen Avenue. Quite fitting for the Wicker Park neighbourhood, Caffe de Luca is in what looks like a converted loft with a rustic feel to it. Everyone is relaxed and in his or her zone. Nice, I thought to myself, very nice indeed. I grabbed a seat by the window so that I could see the action outside and so that I could let the pedestrians see how people appreciate the art of dining — without making a complete fool of myself in the process.
Service was a bit slow to me. I had found it disconcerting initially. It took a while for me to get accustomed to the laissez faire way of the service, almost like allowing your eyes to adjust to light after you have just waken from sleep. After what seemed like an exaggerated length of time, the waitress came to the table to take my order. Since I had time to peruse the menu, had decided what I wanted, posted a status on Facebook, and even sent a few text messages to some friends, I placed my order without delay. I opted for grilled calamari, tortellachi carbonera, and asked the waitress for a recommendation for a red wine, of which she offered a chianti. I was ready for action.
Shortly after the waitress walked away to give my order to the kitchen, she returned with a basket of bread, wafers, and a white bean dip. Complementary items do not ever have to be good, but when they are you know you have hit the jackpot. The bread was so soft, so very soft, and so delicious. It went down well with the bean dip that was made up of white bean purée, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley. Spread the dip on the bread, bite, chew, swallow, smile, and then moan. I knew at the moment of the second bite that I had no business sitting by the window while having so much enjoyment before me.
Then the appetizer of grilled calamari came. What was I thinking? I am going to have to start inquiring as to whether the appetizers at the restaurants I got to are small or entrée size. We are NOT talking about a few manageable sized pieces of calamari. No, we are talking about a large plate of grilled goodness served up on a salad with a vinaigrette. This is the second restaurant where I have gone that prepared grilled calamari such that it was flavourful throughout and did not have any consistency of rubber. If you have had calamari, you tend to think chewy. That was not the case here. I was not going to have that plate of smile-inducing calamari defeat me, so I took my time and savoured it all to completion only to have an epiphany thereafter — there was no way I was going to eat all of the entrée that I had ordered. Fortunately the waitress did not bring the entrée immediately after clearing the empty plate of calamari and salad from the table. When the tortellachi carbonara came, I grunted. Not only was the plate large but it was filled high. The carbonara was cheese filled pasta, spinach, garlic, and parmesan in a heavy cream. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Oh so wrong because it was so right and so good to me. With the tortellachi carbonara being so heavy, the chianti was a nice light balance. The epiphany, the realization, I had after eating the grilled calamari kicked in and I had to push the plate aside and have the remainder packaged for to go. After all, had to leave some room for dessert and coffee.
I sat and waited for a while before delving into the world of dessert and coffee. One of the things that I found incredibly likeable about Caffe de Luca is that it feels like a cafe in Australia — Melbourne to be more precise. There never seems to be a rush for anyone to finish eating and then get up and get out so that someone else can take the vacated seat. I noticed that there was a rather slow turnover of customers. When they came in, they sat at great length eating, relaxing, eating more, and then trying to fight food comatose. You sit and let your food go down and you enjoy the ambience as long as you like. Yep, listed to some heavy rock playing in the background, ala Van Halen — so very 1980′s, so not Duran Duran and Eurythmics, which made the 1980′s a hype decade.
But the time came for me to make my decision and I settled on a tiramisu — so traditional — and espresso and honey topped with coffee. Coffee at Dunkin Donuts? Coffee at Starbucks? Coffee at Seven-Eleven? Coffee from my own coffee pot, which I do not own? Never! I had already made Cafe Con Leche my stopping ground for coffee. Add Caffe de Luca to the list. I was already won over with the tiramisu, that was enough for a date and me, but the coffee had to have been done with some kind of attention to bliss in mind. There will be several days that I will stop in Caffe de Luca just to get coffee for to go. This was a fantastic way to wrap up the whole meal.
I entered Caffe de Luca with a bit of dismay because of the slow service. I left with a completely different sentiment and plans to return. The price was what I would consider “middle of the road.” Then again, I had ordered quite a bit and I recognized that I had to pay the price accordingly. So, I get to close out Year 2011 having added Italian to my food journal finally. Being that I live in Chicago, I will have to venture down to Little Italy and perhaps to a few other hidden Italian eateries in the city so that I can taste some more flavours representative of that high heel boot in Southern Europe. As I close out 2010, Happy New Year and get your eat on in 2011. Pip! Pip!