Ready, Freddy’s

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

I have been on a serious Italian kick as of late, so a friend had recommended a certain Italian grocery store/restaurant in Cicero, Illinois. Since it is not on any main road where there is a long list of eateries from which to choose, it was one of those holes in the wall that I had missed whenever I passed down the road where it is located. I figured I would try it out since it was a small family owned place and you certainly get some of the best food from those kinds of establishments. After constant prefaces of the place not being chic-chic, it was apparent that after five years of knowing me, my friend doesn’t realize that Caribbean stock care far less about how a restaurant looks because we are strictly about whether the food warrants an applause.

Italian Bread

Italian Bread

Ready? Set? And off we went to Freddy’s at 1600 S. 61St Avenue in Cicero. On entry, you walk into a grocery store where you can purchase your share of Italian products for all of your Italian recipes. Then you approach the counter where you are greeted with cooked meats, pastas, antipastas, salads, and a very inviting staff. One thing that was noticeable was that there is apparently a constant set of regular customers who come in. That becomes evident when everyone at Freddy’s would greet certain customers by first name or simply start dishing up food without the customers having to say what it was they wanted. Despite the long lines — and believe me when I say that they get to be long — those who are behind the counter don’t rush you, as they answer all questions you have about what they have on their display. We of Caribbean makeup are accustomed to that kind of service.

Mediterranean Salad

Mediterranean Salad

My friend and I ordered Mediterranean salad. Most would consider it to be a house salad because of the lettuce and tomatoes. But there were black olives and feta cheese added, and topped with a vinaigrette. Sure it may be pedestrian to most, but once you bite into the lettuce and the tomatoes, you start to wonder if the produce had come from a local garden, not from a bag snatched off the shelf at the nearby market. With the complimentary loaf of Italian bread, I checked this off as a “Good Start.”

Cheese Ravioli in Vodka Sauce

Cheese Ravioli in Vodka Sauce

The homemade cheese ravioli with vodka sauce was the light to my fuse. It took me years to start indulging ravioli because having eaten Chef Boy-Ardee ravioli as a child, there was something in my early adult life that had told me ravioli was a work of the devil. After years of living in Chicago and divining myself on some real Italian food, ravioli had worked itself in to my diet. The cheese ravioli at Freddy’s was a prime example of why I love the menu item so much. The vodka sauce was neither bland, nor salty, nor acrid. Thinking that the substantial amount of ravioli piled up on the plate would feed into a noticeable cha-ching once things were rung up at the register, I was rather shocked to discovered that the price was way less than what I had expected. Full of flavour but not with a high charge accordingly, I was way past happy.

Chicken Piccata

Chicken Piccata

We went a notch up with a plate of chicken piccata. I like fish in a lemon base, but not my chicken per se. This dish changed it all. I think part of the problem with chicken piccata I have had in the past was that it seemed the chicken was cooked in pure lemon juice without any other herbs and spices. I was expecting to have my eyes scrunched and the bite of lemon nipping at the back of my jaw. That was not the case. The basil, the sauce, and bloom in each bite, I requested another loaf of bread and used it to sop the sauce. There was no reason to sit around like a charm school student when such a tender piece of chicken was as appetizing as it was. Defeat was nearing but not absolute, for we dealt a wonderful blow to the plate of chicken masala that was buried under fresh, plump mushrooms. I don’t know how they prepare the chicken at Freddy’s but it is ridiculously juicy and so tender you could liken slicing it to cutting a cloud. Again, I got more bread so that I could go around the plate to sop up the worthy gravy.

Chicken Marsala

Chicken Marsala

If you go to Freddy’s, I highly recommend finding out when they open. GO THEN. They are incredibly good at the service and the food that they prepare. The wait is worth it, but you may want to start indulging immediately rather than wait. Freddy’s has a cash-only policy, so keep that in mind. I did not get to survey the full lay of the small grocery store to see what all they had on their shelves. Much like a lot of small ethnic grocery stores, the products are of a quality to make your recipes pop more than they would if you were to buy the same products from a big box grocery store.  If I could force myself to get out of bed earlier on Saturdays, I would rush down to Cicero so that I am at Freddy’s when the door opens. At some point I will and I will lick my fingers like we Caribbean people do when we feast on food that we like.

Freddy's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon Freddy's Pizzeria on Foodio54

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

Pasta D’Arte, Arrabbiata Gino

Pasta D'Arte

For the record, I am not angry. While adding more Italian into my vocabulary, I learned that arrabbiata is Italian meaning angry. And there is a story to me actually finding out what the word meant. A few years ago, an individual who had designed the website for three restaurants I had written about, left a comment on a page. I think I still have a big head from the positive feedback he had given. But what stuck out most were the recommendations for a few hidden gems. Before leaving for personal holiday — that was clipped a few days thanks to catching a bad cold in Houston, of all places — I went back to the comment section of my food journal and found the recommendations. Needing to round out the real Italian eateries unbeknownst to those in the know, I saw the suggestion for Pasta D’Arte at 6311 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Norwood Park. That became my destination.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

With the weather being nice, there was no reason to stay inside and miss the sunlight. Now that we are getting closer to autumn, the sun is dropping below the horizon faster in the evenings. So, I had a table on the front patio while watching an orange sun slowly climb down from a blue sky. What better way to refresh my palate than with a glass of cranberry juice. Had I not been driving and most definitely if I had no intentions of devouring more than necessary, I would have opted for a glass — or a bottle — of wine. I thought quick of being too far from home behind the wheel and decided that I would default to prude status and enjoy the cranberry juice instead. Aahhhhh!

Italian Bread

Italian Bread

First to the table was a loaf of Italian bread, grated Parmesan cheese, and mixed, pickled vegetables. The bread was not yanked from the ice box, thawed, and put in a bread basket with clean linen before brought to the table. It was nice and crusty on the outside, light and airy on the inside, quite a great start as I dipped it in olive oil accented with the Parmesan cheese. It was clear that with the complementary menu items coming out with high satisfaction marks, nothing could be unappealing on the menu.

Insalata Caprese

Insalata Caprese

Then the caprese insalata came to the table for my first course and I forgot rather quickly how tasty the bread was. In case I may not have written this in any of my blog posts, I am addicted to tomatoes. These were cut into slices, not into halves the way they are in most caprese salads. Fresh mozzarella, black olives, and a dollop of pesto in the middle left me with one word for the server when he asked me how everything was — Bravo!!! Most of the time the salad is accented with a balsamic vinaigrette. I must admit that the pesto was not only a pleasant surprise but it was a better touch.

Sopa

Sopa

The second course was a soup — jokingly referred to as a garbage soup. Where many think of minestrone as a potpourri of soup ingredients, the soup that I had a Pasta D’Arte now ranks up there with soups that fit my Rant and Rave category like New England clam chowder, lobster bisque, and pumpkin bisque. Prepared with a vegetable broth and plum tomatoes, it had sage, white beans, barley, onion, and garlic. This was an ideal soup for my low salt diet and flavoured such that you really don’t miss the added sodium. Reminding myself that I was sitting outside one the front patio, I did not take any slices of the Italian bread and go around the inside of the bowl of soup in the manner of an unpolished embarrassment. Correction — I waited until all was clear. I may have my prude tendencies, but they’re conditional, and indulging this soup was not one of those times to be prim.

Penne all' Arrabbiata

Penne all’ Arrabbiata

The third course was where I got my language lesson. I had been waffling between ordering a penne all’ arrabbiata or a ravioli di arragosta. The server told me that at Pasta D’Arte they make the pasta angry — or arrabbiata — by adding red pepper, black pepper, garlic, and onions. And after eating it, I was very, very angry in a very, very good way. I love spicy food and Italian restaurants that temper their recipes for a palate that won’t give bad reviews lighten the “kick” to the dish that makes it what it is. From the first bite, all I kept saying was, “Thank God the chef prefers that you have the dish as it was indeed intended to be prepared.” I was reminded very much why the restaurants that you have to go over the river and through the woods — to Grandmother’s house we go — to find are so much better than anything you will find on a main stretch.

Ravioli di Arragosta

Ravioli di Arragosta

The fourth dish was the ravioli di arragosta. Waffling is a good thing because if you can’t make up your mind between two dishes, having both is an option that is never a bad idea. The ravioli di arragosta was a plate of ravioli stuffed with lobster and I don’t mean with a hint of lobster. It was served in a cream sauce with tomatoes and shredded lettuce. I do believe I had made a conscious decision to forego red sauces after having this dish. It was, of course, a rather quick thought because I remembered the penne all’ arrabbiata, which is prepared in a red sauce. It was mandatory that I ordered some ravioli di arragosta for to go.

Flight of Sorbet

Flight of Sorbet

I sat for a while and enjoy more of the nice temperatures and let the food settle some before having a dolci. It was warm and a nice way to cool off was to have a flight of sorbet. There were cups of lemon, raspberry, and blood orange. Recently, I had tried my hand at making pineapple sorbet and the sorbet at Pasta D’Arte gave me some ideas for some more sorbet recipes to attempt. As much as I have searched for sorbet in the frozen section at the market, nothing that I have ever found close to the bloom of flavour that the lemon, raspberry, and blood orange sorbets gave. Since I have decided to wean myself from coffee, I did not indulge a cappuccino, espresso, or regular coffee. Instead, I had another cranberry juice, which was a nice accompaniment to the sorbets.

All in all, the visit to Pasta D’Arte may have been long awaited, but good things come to those who wait. The service was absolutely top, and it is crystal clear that service at authentic Italian restaurants set a high bar in customer service. Add to that high quality food and the trip out to the fringes of the far Northwest Side of Chicago becomes a highlight in your culinary landscape. I am shocked to have taken so long to follow up on the recommendations sent to me via a comment on a previous post. However, I’m glad I did and whenever I am  not angry enough, I know a certain penne all’ arrabbiata that will help.

Trattoria Pasta D'Arte on Urbanspoon Pasta D'Arte Trattoria on Foodio54