A-One Italian-French and A10

A10 Hyde Park

February is speeding with a quickness. And I had thought that I would have visited at least one restaurant per week since the New Year began. Alas, the constant snowing and arctic temperatures when snow isn’t falling joined forces to have me running to the warmth of my condominium rather than to the inviting flavours of any restaurants. That is not a good thing because it means once the temperatures warm up finally and I go outside to venture to restaurants for sampling, I will overdo it and then have issues with the night elves that visit my closet and stitch up my pants such that they’re tight around the belly. Ugh, I hate winter, but I love food enough to brave the chill of the Chicago air every once in a while.

A10 Dinner

A10 Dinner

Baguette

Baguette

A great friend and I had managed to escape to Hyde Park a few weeks ago to sample a new restaurant on the Hyde Park landscape. We were so blown over by the service and the food that the experience had plagued our thoughts and conversations since. After a long weekend of being inside, I had cabin fever. I am not a fan of shopping and long walks along the beach with the wind blowing angrily off of Lake Michigan may be a romantic escape for those who like to play roulette with pneumonia.  But food is my lover and I can stand a walk to the subway and connect to a bus to get to a destination that will take my mind way from the fact that the temperatures never got out of the single digits. So, after making reservations, we went back to A10 at 1462 E. 53rd Street in the new chi-chi fantasy world that has taken over the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park.

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Templeton Rye

Templeton Rye

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

There is always the request for what one would like to start with drinking. My friend tried her hand with an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail since I had it on the first visit and apparently wouldn’t shut up about how much I loved it. After her first few sips, she had kept mentioning how it was an excellent option. I was in a rare mood — no rarer than usual, though. I requested a flight of whiskies. You can hear all the beer connoisseurs mumbling through upturned sneers, “Snob.” With a baguette in front of us served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic with garlic cooked such that it was spreadable, we were off to a smashing start.

Garlic Soup

Garlic Soup

For starters, my friend had a bowl of roasted garlic soup and I had a Portobello mushroom pizza. The soup was hearty and full of flavour. I recommend it highly if you are all about being heart healthy. Even if you are one of those fans of vampire movies and you fear one of the pretty actors with polished fangs may come to you one night to bite your neck, a bowl of that soup would  be perfect for fending off those wicked vampires. The Portobello mushroom pizza was more like grilled toast with cheese, sautéed onions, and pickled carrots. Giordano’s what? Eduardo’s what? Lou Malnati’s what? Domino’s what? Pizza Hut what? The Portobello mushroom pizza was a blast.

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

My taste buds had me in a mood for seafood. Fortunately, A10 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to seafood offerings for my palate. I ordered a cold smoked trout that was served over whipped garlic potatoes. Wow! Having had trout fried, having it smoked such that the fish was flaky and meaty has now moved it up into my Top 5 Fish Loves. Because it was all so fantastic, I worked my knife and fork in slow motion, trying to make the moment last as long as possible without letting the dish get cold.

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Many of the specials had pork in the recipe, which was not something that appealed to my friend. Instead, she ordered blue crab ravioli with fried green tomatoes. During the first visit, she and I had shared a bit of our dishes and when I had tasted the ravioli that was bursting with blue crab, I understood fully why she ordered it again. This was not a case of “when all else fails,” but one of “you are certain not to fail by ordering the ravioli dish.”

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

We sat for a while after we wrapped up our entrées, reminiscing about how Hyde Park used to look. It appears that change is taking over the landscape of Hyde Park in a rapid fashion that would otherwise eradicate charm in other neighbourhoods because of poor execution. However, Hyde Park has been a bastion of diversity and change, so the new look doesn’t feel out-of-place. By the time my friend’s coffee and my cappuccino arrived, we had recounted where old establishments were that have gone away to give way to a shinier, dynamic Hyde Park.

Cappuccino and Biscotti

Cappuccino and Biscotti

In addition to our coffees, there is one dessert we had that I think that everyone in the Chicago metropolitan area, as well as visitors to the Chicago area, must try. It’s soft serve ice cream — and I don’t mean that cold foam you get at McDonald’s. It’s homemade ice cream, but accentuated with almond granola, a honey drizzle, and thyme. I have prepared my share of savoury ice cream, so this dessert was clearly a winner to me. This was my guilty pleasure dessert in advance of my birthday. I had an allowance for something sweet, yet not sugary and definitely not saccharine. It would be a lie for me to say that I was not in love after the very first scoop.

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

A10 is relatively new, perhaps only a few months of being in business. Unlike a lot of restaurants that are still in their neophyte stages, complete with fumbling and blaring presentations of overcompensation, A10 has the air of a well-oiled machine. It is also quite obvious that the residents of Hyde Park are appreciative of the restaurant gracing 53rd Street, as there is a constant flow of those from the neighbourhood coming in to partake of the menu offerings. For this to have been my second visit, I have been a minimum of ten notches past impressed. It’s not that the hostesses remembered me. It’s not that our first server came by and spoke. It’s not that those on the hospitality staff welcomed my friend and me back. It’s that they got it right. And for that, I say, “C’est bon et bravo!”

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 on Urbanspoon A10 Hyde Park on Foodio54

More Angry Pasta at Vapiano

Ginger Ale

Ginger Ale

Note: The Lincoln Park location at 2577 N. Clark Street closed in July, 2014. There is a new location in The Loop at 44 S. Wabash Avenue.

My appetite alarm had gone off an hour before it was time for the close of my day at work. Suffice it to say, that is problematic in ways that I can’t describe. All of my thoughts become scrambled and I get edgy to the point of being irritable. I keep saying to myself that I have to do something about my constant appetite, but that may require therapy. And I don’t have money to give to a therapist when I prefer forking it over to a restaurant. Needless to say, I wanted something with a kick to it because the weather outside was biting. To my wondering surprise, I had received a text message from a friend who had mentioned a restaurant in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, at 2577 N. Clark Street called Vapiano. I recalled walking by the restaurant countless times and thinking, Oh, that looks like a cool lounge. Well, I had to put my thoughts of chi-chi ambience aside and do something about my growling belly. So, I was on the #22 Clark Street bus heading to Vapiano to show some love — or a display of usual hunger.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Not even through the door good, the hostess greeted me with a warm welcome. With the wave of her arm, I had my pick of seats. I had arrived before the crowd and it was fantastic being able to choose a seat without any children of the corn and negligent parents in sight. Having a clear view of the open kitchen, my food alarm was dictating that I really indulge. Indulged I did. It was off to the bar for a ginger ale — yes, a non-alcoholic drink since this was a “school night.” Then I was off to the salad bar for what I thought would be a side salad. I ordered a spinach and strawberry salad that was topped with goat cheese, pine nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. This “thing” didn’t come on a small plate. It came in a huge, deep dish. If I could put a face on my appetite, let’s just say that it wore a huge smile. While I am not the greatest fan of goat cheese, when it is added to a salad as an accent, it makes everything splendid in the world.

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

My next order was penne arrabbiata. My pores exhale spices and I tend to love dishes that are heavy-handed with spices. While placing my order for the pasta dish, the chef asked me how spicy I wanted it, on a scale of 1 to 5. After he gave a jeering smile, I settled on a 4. He prepared the penne arrabbiata ANGRY the way that it should be, the way that I like it. The beauty of the dish was that this didn’t come from a bag, out of a can, or from some frozen tray. There was nothing fast about its preparation and the flavour, spicy and angry as it was, was a testament to Vapiano making sure not to fall into the category of “fast food.” Oh, and I used the homemade Italian bread to sop up the sauce. Bravo!!!

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

My New Year’s Absolution was to minimize the amount of sweets in my diet. So far, I have been off to a good start. However, I have willpower issues. I had a chat with my nutritionist, or rather a pleading session, about being able to treat myself every once in a while. She told me that instead of having a hunk of cake, fist size scoop of ice cream, eye-popping slice of ice cream, or slab of cheesecake, I could have an occasional scoop of sorbet, bowl of fruit, or a light cream dessert. Well, what should Vapiano have as a dessert option but a panna cota with strawberry sauce? It was light. It was creamy. It was dreamy. It was my allotment for the month of January. I ordered a cappuccino that I drank sans any sweetener. Either the coffee had been prepared with a quality bean or in a cappuccino machine that wasn’t caked with coffee mud. Wait. The coffee was Illy. Yep, for those who have gone to Intelligentia and are in the know about good coffee, Illy ranks up there on the “Never Disappointing” list. My appetite screamed, Molto bene!!!.

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

If you have been to Food Life in Water Tower, you will have some familiarity with the method for ordering and obtaining your food. You receive a card, after which you then go to which ever station you wish to order — salads, pasta, beverages, and desserts. When you give your order, you then “register” your order at the station. Once the orders have been fulfilled, you then pick them up, return to your table, and commence to devouring all the good eats. When all is done, you pay at the close by giving the cashier your card, who then cashes you out. It’s that simple. There are no servers who come to your table, takes your order, and brings your food to you. The atmosphere is spacious and great for a gathering of friends, especially in the bar area. While many may think that a restaurant void of a server providing table service is the equivalent of fast food, the output from the kitchen is anything but fast. And with me having had angry pasta that tasted the way I remember it tasting in Florence, I think I shall have to return to see if it was just my hunger that made the dish taste so blooming tasty, or if it was indeed heaven buried on red sauce.

Vapiano on Urbanspoon

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

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

Half Italian, Half French, 100% Satisfied

With Facebook being a constant in social media, I decided that it was time to establish a presence for Chicago Alphabet Soup via Facebook. I can’t say that I will ever entertain Twitter since the 140 character limitation is not enough for a good stream of consciousness. Tumblr seems to be the new “it” social media tool. Yes, another account to create and another password to have to manage. My short-term memory is already giving me warnings that I need to limit the number of social media outlets that I have signed up for. And my short-term memory works in concert with my ongoing appetite to prompt me when I should deal with things that really matter — like getting my keys and my wallet, and leaving my condo to get something to eat.

Latte

Latte

My neighbourhood of Logan Square is becoming a Wonderland. It seems that almost every month there is some new boutique, cafe, coffee shop, or eatery dotting the landscape. What was once viewed as a shooting gallery — to quote one friend who almost had a theatrical Scarlett O’Hara attack when I told her I was moving to Logan Square — has now become one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in Chicago. But what should I discover this past Sunday but a swanky grocery store and deli. In the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that is undergoing a renaissance between the Traffic Circle of Doom and Diversey Avenue is Half Italian, at 4653 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Enter and embrace your inner hipster, but also be prepared for quality. Because I was going strictly for something to eat and drink, I did a quick glance of the grocery items just in case there was something that caught my fancy worthy enough for a future purchase. After all of a second, it was all about a latte and — clutch your pearls, your wig or toupee, and even your martini — a BLT. I didn’t just fall off the wagon; I did a proper tuck and roll. For starters, the latte was of the kind that I love, the kind where you can drink it without sugar. The bloke who prepared the cup of wow for me raised his eyebrows when I was outside at one of the tables photographing it. As for the BLT — cue the sound of a chorus dragging out “aaaahhhhhhh” — I don’t know if it was the smokey taste of bacon that made me smile like a dunce, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the spicy mayonnaise, the fact that the sandwich was on Italian bread rather than Sunbeam light bread, or the joke I was reading on a friend’s Facebook wall. Half Italian has a new customer and if I keep gaining weight, my jeans that fit comfortably now will become skinny jeans and I’ll fit the hipster mold. No! Reverse, rewind, scratch that.

BLT

BLT

Now, there was no need for me to saunter back to my condo because the day was several notches past ideal. No clouds, no humidity, no heat, a nice breeze, and me not wanting to show any more neighbours my remodeled Stanley Kubrick bathroom. So, I headed to Oak Park to my favourite dessert shop — Sugar-Fixé at 119 N. Marion Street. I had more coffee that required no sugar and a verine. Shall we stop and have a moment of reflection? (Pause) That parfait of chocolate mousse layered with moist brownies and topped with English toffee not only photographed well, but I had to minimize my scooping to smaller nibbles so that I could savour the whole thing slowly. And from somewhere in the background, Isabelle Antena was singing “LaPecheresse a la Ligne.” How fitting. Sitting outside having verine and taking coffee is so European. First, I was Italian (buona) and then I was French (bon). I know that it seems Chicago has decided to get out of the business of cupcake mills and become the land of the most addictive doughnuts, but a plethora of French patisseries in Chicago of the Sugar-Fixé kind would make this city the most populated city in the world. Now that I think of it, Sugar-Fixé has become my de facto landing spot for coffee and dessert that never fail — unless I am going to Julius Meinl for sweets, savouries, and live music.

Verine

Verine

Many people go for long walks on Sunday. Some clog the roads with casual drives, the speed limit being too much for them. Others just keep up mess. I prefer scouting out all the good things to quiet the monster that is affectionately known as my belly. After being half Italian, half French, and 100% satisfied this past Sunday, I will try to continue a tradition of being Pan-ethnic with some other fooderies. Hmm. If people can do pub crawls — and, yes, most crawl literally after endless imbibing — then I can do a gluttony trek. I may be in pain after overindulging, though, but that’s par for the culinary course. And I will post the photos on Facebook, not the ones of me on the floor in tears because I’m too full to sleep and fighting food comatose at the same time.

Half Italian Grocer & Deli on Urbanspoon

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.

Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.

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.

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