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

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.