Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Balena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Italian Style at Mancini’s

Italian Bread

Italian Bread

My herbs and spice rack was running low on product. That meant it was time for some replenishment. With the temperatures getting chillier, there will be pumpkin soup, sweet potato soup, apple cobbler, blackberry cobbler, gingerbread loaves, and helpless gingerbread people who will never escape the vice of my pretty teeth. You simply cannot have any of that without some cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, ginger, allspice, and other spices. I know you’re saying, “So what?” Well, your inquiry is a good segue into my story. In Oak Park, Illinois, there is a spice shop by the name of Penzey’s. It’s the equivalent of a chef’s candy store. Unlike the products you will find on the spice aisles at your big box grocery store, the products at Penzey’s have pizzazz for your recipes. Everything pops when you add a bit of Penzey’s to your ingredients.

After spending almost an hour in Penzey’s and purchasing more than I had anticipated — why didn’t someone tell me that saffron was so blooming EXPENSIVE? — I did a little skippy-do-da across the street to Mancini’s for some Italian smile-inducing menu items. For years I had been intending to go to Mancini’s and there was a moment in time when it had closed. Then it opened again in a new location at 1111 Lake Street. There was no reason for me to have several more years pass before seeing if they were worthy.

THEY ARE WORTHY!!!

Fried Ravioli

Fried Ravioli

In usual metropolitan Chicago fashion, the temperatures had waffled towards being warmer. So, I sat outside and gobbled a loaf of homemade Italian bread with olive oil and parmesan cheese while scanning the menu. Ah, I had decided that I would mess up my diet briefly by indulging some fried cheese ravioli. I didn’t go wrong with the order. I haven’t had any fried ravioli that I have not fallen in love with and Mancini’s now ranks up there with restaurants that get it correct. Any time I think of fried menu items, I am reminded of the Texas State Fair and the murderous deep-fried what-not things they sell — fried Twinkies, fried Snickers, double fried turkey legs, fried shrimp and grits, fried spaghetti and meatballs, fried collard greens, fried Kool Aid, fried candy apples, fried cheese, fried macaroni and cheese, fried Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and countless other fried baddies that make you want to run through oncoming traffic. My cholesterol and blood pressure skyrocket thinking about it all. I am not making this up either.

Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

To balance out indulging eight, small fried ravioli with some incredibly flavourful marinara sauce — didn’t taste like it came out of a jar, and the tomatoes were much too chunky to convince me otherwise — I had a green salad. No Thousand Island dressing. No ranch. No Caesar dressing. I had a raspberry vinaigrette. I had a stupid smile on my face afterwards. I had told my server that I did not want any nuts on the salad because that is a sure way of having my salad tossed on the ground. (Pause) Okay, I’m not that petty. But the salad sans the nuts and with the raspberry vinaigrette would have been enough to convince me that feasting on rabbit food is an option that would appeal to my discriminating palate. Rabbit food is like ambrosia when served with a raspberry vinaigrette.

Shrimp Fra Diavalo

Shrimp Fra Diavalo

It was clear that Mancini’s was not a rustic Italian eatery. Most of the pasta dishes had a red sauce base to them. And considering they are popular for their pizza, I guess tomato based sauces would be more popular as well. There was nothing wrong with that. It was quite evident that they do best with tomato bases because the shrimp fra diavolo reminded me of the “I need a cigarette STAT” arrabbiata dishes I have had. There was a spicy punch to the shrimp fra diavolo that made it more than worth the order. The abundant shrimp burst as I bit through the plump figures. A few words to describe the shrimp fra diavolo: angry, fresh, mandatory, much-needed, blissful, and Oh my God, I must have some more of this.

Homemade Gelato

Homemade Gelato

By the time I had finished all of the food that had been set in front of me, I needed about fifteen minutes of sitting still to let it all go down. There was dessert to be had. I wasn’t leaving without having any. No way. No how. No tiramisu. No canolli. I had homemade gelato. My eyes rolled, and I don’t mean that in a bad way either. Scooping stracciatella, nocciola, dark chocolate sorbet, and banana with the miniature spatula, there was a brief blanking out as I think I had leapt out of my seat and performed some kind of dance without knowing I was out of my head. That had to have been it because people were looking at me and clapping. I keep saying that I need to seek therapy for the blackout moments, but I often find myself making plans to go to some other eatery rather than finding a proper therapist.

The visit to Mancini’s was long overdue. I think part of my delay had been due to the fact that it’s known for being a popular pizzeria. I am not big on having pizza from any place that isn’t a hole in the wall. Chicago has some big box style restaurants that sell pizza and I find myself smiling a plastic smile when gnawing endlessly on cheese in the like manner of chewing a huge wad of gum. You don’t suffer through your pizza dining experience like that at the suspicious pizza shacks. I am glad that I ordered from the pasta offerings. My server was outstanding with recommendations and being able to say absolutely that the shrimp fra diavolo was their best pasta dish. There was no waffling and remarks of, “Well, I like everything.” That kind of decisiveness is very Italian and I like that. She was just as direct with convincing me that I wanted some gelato and suggesting flavours that would go over well. Having bought a season’s worth of spices, I don’t know when I will get back to Penzey’s, but I will be going to Mancini’s again in the a few days.

Mancini's Pizza Pasta Cafe on Urbanspoon Mancini's on Foodio54

Midweek Escape to Italy

So, my cell phone rings while I am still at work and it is one of my great friends. There is the inquiry as to what I was doing after work, to which I answered that I was sitting at my desk — well past 5:00 PM — pondering what to eat. Food consumes — no pun intended — my free thoughts. What to eat? Where to eat? Do I drive there, walk, or take public transit to get the food source? Should it be quick or a dining experience where I can sit still and really enjoy my meal? My friend’s call snapped me out of my waffling at least such that I could think of a general location. There was a certain Italian restaurant where she and I had gone last summer. And talk about clarity, there was no case of introducing other options along with the Italian restaurant. It was off to 116 N. Oak Park Avenue in Oak Brook for a midweek escape to Il Vicolo.

Gnarly Head

Gnarly Head

The temperatures were moderate enough that we wondered if there would be seating available outside. Once we arrived and there was a bit more bite in the wind than before we left our respective job locations — she coming from Oak Brook Terrace and me coming from downtown Chicago — it dawned on us that temperatures are not consistently warm until the last week of June. Nevertheless, we had a window seat and imagined the warmth of the sun as we watched pedestrians’ pass by with clattering teeth.

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Usually whenever my friend and I would catch up for dinner, we would never have wine or a “loaded” beverage during “school nights.” We reserve libations for weekends when we don’t have to worry about sleeping through the ringing of the morning alarm. However, I was in one of my “just bring it” moods and opted for some wine. In past posts I have mentioned that I have no wine snobbery. What I said to the server was that I’d relay what I like for possible dinner courses and she could surprise me with an accompanying wine accordingly. After my friend and I had given our requests, the server said that there would be a red wine that we both should try. And, so there was a bottle of Gnarly Head, a Pinot Noir, brought to the table. There was a quick pour, a swishing around in the glass, a tasting, and a nod of approval, and then the glasses were filled. Bravo.

Tortino Di Melanzane

Tortino Di Melanzane

With a basket of complimentary bread, fresh olive oil, parmesan cheese, and cracked black pepper, we enjoyed homemade Italian bread. One of the things about being serious with baking, I can tell when bread is fresh and when it has been purchased from a grocer or bakery. This bread came from the oven at Il Vicolo. That says something for authenticity and our devouring it was testament to our approval of not having perfectly prepared Sunbeam or Wonder bread put in front of us. For a salad, we started with a grilled calamari salad that left us not wanting fried calamari ever again. Don’t get me wrong, as there are some restaurants where the fried calamari has been the absolute best. However, tender grilled calamari and baby octopus in a very light lemon garlic and olive oil served over a mixed green salad were fantastic. Next time I return to Il Vicolo, I will inquire as to whether they use fresh vegetables because the salad had the kind of flavour that pops, much like what I have had any time I have gone to the country where pesticides and growth enhancers are not used on the crops.

Grilled Calamari and Salad

Grilled Calamari and Salad

The dining experience got into full swing with a tortino de melanzane. We all have had eggplant parmesan and have friends who swear that they, their mother, or their grandmother prepares the best eggplant parmesan ever. Whatever. You can have it. Give me tortino de melanzane. The baked eggplant was neither mushy nor crunchy. Goldilocks would even agree that it was just right. The mozzarella was not piled on so high that it introduced a choke factor. The tomato sauce was moderately chunky the way Ragu wished that jarred foolishness they sell was chunky. Again, full of flavour without the feel of salt on the tongue. And they included one of my all-time favourite highlights of cilantro. Now I was understanding fully why the Gnarly Head was the wine of choice per the server. The oak flavour was all the spice needed to complete the marriage with the meal. Listen to me sounding like a real food critic. Ha!

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

Italian cuisine may be known for a good mix of herbs and spices in the dishes, yet most dishes are not spicy. You don’t turn red in the cheeks after forking your meal into your mouth. Well, some people have mild constitutions and anything other than just salt has them screaming and putting on a show. I have been gaining weight slowly over the past few months, so I keep carbohydrates in my diet. Hence, I had pasta and this time I had a spicy penne arrabbiata. My first exposure to penne arrabbiata was with the purchase of a bag of it from Trader Joe’s. I was surprised that something frozen could taste so blooming delicious because food from the frozen section is saturated with ingredients that people use for trick words in spelling bees. Then after having penne arrabbiata at some Italian restaurants, it became a source of addiction. Well, the same can be said for the pasta dish at Il Vicolo. It was spicier than what I have had anywhere else, but that made it all the more appetizing to me because I love fire with my flavour. Each bite was bliss and rather than drowning the penne in the sauce, the sauce was more like an accent. Outstanding!

Nocciola

Nocciola

By now my camera was starting to do its own thing. Buttons were inoperable, which really made it horrible for me being able to set the focus point for my compositions. Even resetting the white balance to account for the sunlight gone down was impossible. Sure, I should have been in the moment rather than photographing my food. But how else can I present impressions of my dining experiences to make you want to dash out to the restaurant? It would have been so unfair for me to leave out such appetizing photos. Alas, I could only muster so much and I put the camera away and made a note to myself to trash it when I got home. I have three other digital cameras that work without giving me grief. The cheap one I used for these shots was disposable. My friend had ordered pappardelle gamberi e funghi. I don’t particularly like to have my friends wait for me to finish snapping away with my camera because ticking off close to a hundred shots per dish could mean having fork up lukewarm food. So, I missed capturing her dish of tasty homemade flat pasta with shrimp and mushrooms in a fresh tomato and basil sauce. This is one dish that I have yet to have all to myself and I must return to for that very purpose, per my friend’s recommendation.

Chocolate Lava Cake

Chocolate Lava Cake

We wrapped up with coffee and dessert. The coffee had a robust flavour, yet it required very little sweetener. And there were the desserts. Instead of the ubiquitous plate of tiramisu or cannoli, my friend had chocolate lava cake and I had nocciola. The chocolate lava cake, which had a preparation time of eight minutes, apparently was a big hit with my friend. Then again, the last time she had cake was earlier in April for her birthday, thankful that Easter had passed and sampling a dolce was not a frowned-upon option. I had it before and agreed with her expressions that indicated it was a worthy dessert. The nocciola was certainly real gelato. You can’t buy that flavour in the frozen dairy section of your local market. You just can’t.

On weekends, Il Vicolo has a tendency to fill up quickly. Once you have had any of their dishes or interacted with the wait staff, you understand why. The prices of the dishes are far from exorbitant. Of all the times going, I have not had a dining experience that resulted in me leaving dissatisfied. If anything, I always make plans for a return visit. If you go on the weekends and for the evening courses, make a reservation. Trust me when I say that you will not want to stand around watching plates boasting flavours and aromas that cause drooling. You will want to work your knife and fork on some morsel without delay. As for me, I do believe a midweek escape to Il Vicolo is in order for the near future.

A Season of Flavours

Trattoria 225

As a food enthusiast, I often find myself retracing my visits to certain restaurants. There is always something during that initial visit that becomes a draw to pull me back. The food was outstanding. The service was top. The price was reasonable. Any one of the three may have applied, but when you get an authentic invitation to return, that somehow trumps it all. When a great friend and I had gone to Trattoria 225 in February, not only did I find every aspect of the visit worthy, but the comfort the staff had engaging us in conversation spoke volumes. At many restaurants, taking customers to their seats, getting their orders, bringing their food and beverage to their tables, an occasional “Is everything all right?” and a plastic smile is “doing the job.” At Trattoria 225, making you feel that you have gone to a short stay with family is their job.

Peach BelliniLocated at 225 Harrison Street in the Arts District of Oak Park, Illinois, Trattoria 225 is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. When my friend and I had gone earlier in the year, I had a chance to talk to the manager about photographing the food — my food — and when a good time would be to come in for my own personal assignment. At that time, I did not have my camera, which was just wrong per the Foodie Mantra. As we sat at the table and worked our knives, forks, and spoons, on some of the most appetizing Italian dining this side of the Atlantic Ocean, I knew I had to return with my camera to capture the impressions that made us smile. But at age 44, time has a way of flying by, as if whole days or weeks are being devoured by a time monster. Fast forward to August and I finally return and upon being greeted, I knew that I would be quite thankful for what I was going to receive in terms of service and quality of taste.

Bread and Olive OilI started with a peach bellini. Now, I usually view peach bellinis as brunch drinks — ala cosmopolitan, mimosa, and the like. Yet again, it seems that bartenders at Italian restaurants have a mantra of showcasing their best talents only. The peach bellini was fruity and spiked nicely, but not to the point where I was hovering above the tree tops. The peach flavouring tasted more like a liqueur on the palate as opposed to a nectar. That was not bad at all. Not to quench my thirst too quickly, I indulged some warm Italian bread and olive oil with Parmesan cheese. Wow! I have had Italian bread that I had to struggle with in terms of tearing or cutting. Even then, I had to gnash at it — thankful that I still have my own teeth, not dentures. The bread at Trattoria 225 was nothing like that. Warm, crusty on the outside, and fresh on the inside, I had all of it with olive oil that did not taste like it had been purchased from a chain grocer. There is something to be said about olive oil that has flavour, not just oil in a bottle with a label saying that it is olive oil. As the wind blew about and I watched the sun set, I wondered what I would have to leave me with my saying: Who says that the first time sets the standard for how good “it” is?

Butternut Squash Ravioli

For an appetizer, I ordered butternut squash ravioli. The combination of brown butter, roasted walnuts, and fresh sage over the ravioli made for a wise decision for an appetizer. Neither heavy-handed nor laissez faire with the spices, I enjoyed each of the mini ravioli without complaint. Butternut squash soup is nothing new to me, but adding it to ravioli that had been baked to a moderate crisp had left me pondering a future menu of homemade butternut squash ravioli and butternut soup served with some meaty fish — tilapia, red fish, or trout. It may have been that the ravioli prepared in a fashion other than stuffed with meat, cheese, or spinach, that the plate was such a highlight. In true Oak Park fashion, a couple sitting at the table next to me engaged me in conversation about restaurants in the Chicago and surrounding areas. To quote the wife, it felt like we were abroad, because people usually if not ever strike up conversation with random strangers. Oh what niceties there are to learn from others. For example — recommended pasta dishes like linguine ai frutti di mare.

Linguine ai Frutti Di MareIt has been over a decade since I have partaken of spaghetti and meatballs. I love Italian dishes that have a tomato sauce base. But having been exposed to more rustic Italian dining, red sauces had seemingly disappeared from my radar — with the exception of eggplant Parmesan and an occasional dish of rigatoni. So when the couple had recommended the linguine ai frutti di mare, I was ridiculously appreciative when the waiter brought a colossal plate of the entrée to the table. Linguine, mussels, shrimp, and calamari in a slightly spicy tomato sauce had left me in a twilight daze before I was three-fourths of the way done. Italian dishes with a tomato base tend to be heavier, but the portions of the linguine ai frutti di mare were rather substantial. As much as I wanted to eat all of it, I also wanted to leave a little for lunch the following day. So I behaved.

Coffee and Cream

For dessert, I settled for something light — coffee hazelnut gelato. Only the size of a dollop, it still was satisfying. Rich and creamy, I would find it hard to believe someone if they had said that it came from the ice cream section at the local market. It was definitely good gelato, not ice cream. As for the coffee, I had spoken too fast and said that I wanted regular coffee. Cappuccino is usually my drink of choice after fine Italian dining. Honestly, I was rather glad that I had ordered the regular coffee along with cream. The mark of good coffee may be noted by one of two possibilities: the coffee machine is in top working order or the brand of coffee is of Top 5 quality. I drank the coffee sans sugar and that was truly an indication that I was not imbibing Folger’s or Maxwell House.

Coffee Hazelnut Gelato

Once again, I got a chance to talk to the manager when he had stepped outside to welcome the customers who had opted to have their meals outside. Although the byline on the restaurant’s awning says “rustic Italian dining,” he explained that the restaurant is more of a community eatery that serves Italian cuisine. If I have not learned anything about Oak Park, one thing I will say that I have latched on to is the notion that community is a major factor in the Oak Park meme. Any time I have gone to a cafe, restaurant, diner, or any establishment in Oak Park, there is a very strong sentiment of family and neighbours. You will always see families communing together. The same applies to neighbours who apparently gather for fellowship. Clearly, Trattoria 225 is one of the community hubs in the southern end of Oak Park. Then again, when you have an establishment with a manager who takes the time to talk to the patrons rather than observing business from a distance, you understand the allure. It was winter when I went to Trattoria 225 the first time. Although I missed spring and finally got to place my feet under a table during summer, I can say with certainty that it has indeed become one of my top eateries for all seasons.

Trattoria 225 on Urbanspoon