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

Midweek Escape to Italy

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

Gnarly Head

Gnarly Head

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

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

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

Tortino Di Melanzane

Tortino Di Melanzane

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

Grilled Calamari and Salad

Grilled Calamari and Salad

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

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

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

Nocciola

Nocciola

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

Chocolate Lava Cake

Chocolate Lava Cake

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

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

A Season of Flavours

Trattoria 225

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

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

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

Butternut Squash Ravioli

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

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

Coffee and Cream

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

Coffee Hazelnut Gelato

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

Trattoria 225 on Urbanspoon

I’m So Lucky

Club Lucky

Facebook has proven to be a great avenue for advertising. If you like a person, place, or thing — a not just a catch-all noun — you may find a posting on your wall that will raise your antennae. During one of the hot spells Chicago was experiencing, there was an advertisement from a restaurant that I had gone to for brunch a year ago. There was a set of martinis, all looking so refreshing, so inviting, so in need of being imbibed. Me not being a prude quickly blocked my calendar and prompted one of my friends to let her know that I was going to Club Lucky at 1824 W. Wabansia Avenue in Chicago’s Wicker Park for some liquid happiness. Not immediately off the main Milwaukee-North-Damen intersection where there is constant energy all around the clock, but rather down the street in the midst of a residential area, there were outdoor seating to be had, martinis to be turned up, and food to be devoured.

Italian BreadAll aboard the Blue Line, which is one of the busiest train lines in the city due to its run out to O’Hare Airport and through trendy neighbourhoods Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square. My friend and I squeezed on at the Clark and Lake subway stop with a host of suits, ties, skater boys, gothic chicks, and growling bellies. It was off to Club Lucky to see if those drinks they make on site had the same appeal as the ones in their Facebook advertisement. With a basket of warm homemade bread at our disposal and the setting sun allowing a bit of a cool breeze to blow about, instead of the muggy heat we had been having, we ordered a lemon drop martini apiece.

Insert sound byte of a spring popping.

Those martinis were loaded. Well, actually, they were not. The bartender had prepared them such that the lemony accent took centre stage, which allowed the vodka to creep up on us. When my friend started smiling excessively, I knew that she had started hovering just about an inch or two above ground. We then decided that it was better to savour the martinis and gobble more bread and drink more water, lest we stumble about like the trashy students at Oxford on Thursday nights.

Lemondrop MartiniHaving gone for brunch, I was already aware that Club Lucky has a way in the kitchen that results in something incredibly tasty coming to the table. The thing is you can never really judge dinner fare by breakfast or brunch. Yes, I have gone to a few restaurants where the brunch menus were, as the current hip-hop generation says, off the chain. The dinner servings were worthy for the floor, I must say. But you cannot go wrong with Italian dinners unless the chef is mixing some Chef-Boy-Ardee into the recipes. Seeing that Club Lucky is not rustic, in that they are heavy on red and cream sauces, we chose our orders — my friend based on a recommendation from the waiter and me knowing what I wanted. And we sat and waited while our orders were prepared. More bread to the table and more water poured into our glasses, we waited more, which gave us the feeling that nothing was heated quickly, styled on plates, and rushed to the tables. Happiness abounded.

Chicken and Herb Totellini

My dining companion ordered chicken and herb tortellini. These chicken and herb filled tortellinis with English peas and pine nuts in homemade vodka sauce were like sirens. They sang, begged, and lured us with each bite. Granted there were no rocks for us to smash against, but we literally were crashing against virtual stones, splashing about, and smiling foolish smiles all the same. The creamy vodka sauce, although not potent enough to make us drunk, was a nice complement to the heavy-laden martinis that kept raising us out of our seats a few inches per swallow. But the last time I had tortellinis in a creamy vodka sauce worthy of raving about was at a certain Italian restaurant in Lincoln Square that another friend and I had gone to for celebration when we both had moved away from an apartment complex on the South Side that had been taken over with drugs, prostitution, and gun play. Just like that the Lincoln Square restaurant, the preparation at Club Lucky added a bloom to the taste, as the spices worked together to give a pop to the dish.

Shrimp Arrabiata

Being a lover of spicy food, I ordered a shrimp arrabiata. Thinking that the chicken and herb tortellinis were a great hit, the arrabiata was worth standing on the table and dancing. Perhaps standing on the table, and me not being a stunt man, would not be the best thing to do. Clapping my hand, stomping my feet, singing a song, or even throwing the plate on the ground — after I had finished all of the arrabiata — would be a better option. Plump shrimp that exploded with flavour and al dente pasta under a tangy and spicy red tomato sauce were all that I needed on this particular evening of cicadas making noise in the background, a beautiful sunset, great company, and yet another martini that by now had me flying across the sky in an invisible jet. Oh, and not that it really matters, but cilantro goes with everything. Added as an accent to the arrabiata, I made a mental note again to carve a wooden hand for clapping anyone across the cheeks who boasts that they prepare the best arrabiata in the world. Clearly, they have not been to Club Lucky and had their dishes.

Cappuccino

By the time we had completed our pasta dishes, several more baskets of bread, and our martinis, we opted to sit for a while before indulging coffee and dessert. It was clear that while Club Lucky does not have an Italian nomenclature in it moniker, what comes from the kitchen is very much representative of Italy in a genuine sense. So, we felt comfortable with our dessert orders, albeit pedestrian. Cappuccino is rather standard coffee fare on menus at any restaurant you go to and instead of ordering espresso to completely wreck our martini high, it was cappuccino for us. Nothing fancy, nothing special, it was perfect and we drank ours sans sugar. Yes, you know you have a good cup of cappuccino in front of you when you do not need any sweeteners.

Apple Pie Ala Mode

One dessert we had eaten was apple pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Again, nothing spectacular, but certainly not a dessert from the frozen food section at the local market. There were chunks of apples in their natural sauces, not in a compost, which was another indication that the pie did not come from a bakery. I know that may sound like a purist statement, but when the sauce is a jelly, you have a compost from a can. That was not the case at Club Lucky. Okay, so the ice cream was not gelato and it no doubt was a scoop of Breyer’s, the main dessert was the star. But you could almost hear the pie singing to us, “You don’t have to be a star to be in my show.” And then there was the tiramisu. One bite and there was indecisiveness. There was breathlessness. There was a need to fight the urge to moan. Whoever the little Italian woman was in the kitchen who soaked the ladyfingers in rum and whipped up the mascarpone cheese and concocted such an awesome dessert deserves to have her feet washed. I have seen people get the Holy Spirit in church and I wanted to do my dance while feasting on the tiramisu.

Tiramisu

By the end of the evening, my friend and I waddled a few blocks away and teetered into a boutique grocery store where I purchased a bottle of wine for later dinners. As to our experience at Club Lucky, anyone with an insatiable appetite and an appreciation for exquisite Italian dining would do well to get his or feet under a table and get sated. Had it not been for the Facebook advertisement of the martinis, which were a blast, who knows what restaurant I would have been at? After an evening of super service, fantastic food, and smile-inducing prices, the only thing that comes to mind is oh how lucky I am to be able to enjoy such bliss.

When the Moon Hits Your Eye

It recently dawned on me that Chicago Alphabet Soup had its sixth year anniversary earlier in April. What started out as text updates of restaurant excursions on my free Earthlink web space has now become a compendium of ethnic eateries throughout the Chicago metropolitan area on WordPress. That is what I call dedication. Others may call it a love of great food and I am the last person to argue with that observation. But today was not one of those days when I was reminiscing about starting the food blog. I was thinking about a certain restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, that I passed on several occasions and wondered if it was worthy of a visit. Well, there was only one way to find out — just go!

Geppetto's

At 113 North Oak Park Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois, is Geppetto’s. Its fame comes from its pizza. Having a discriminating palate, pizza is not an item that has been high on my list of things to hanker for. After you have lived in New York City and have had their pizzas, especially a Brooklyn pizza that you have to fold in half, anything outside of that is cat food on wafers with cheese. Nevertheless, I found myself at Geppetto’s, greeted by a server who wore the face of someone who was ready to go home — or who was ready to leave work and go wherever. Full of empty seats — I could not resist — I had a seat close enough to the window where I could capture some nice impressions of whatever it was I planned to order. Having taken photos at a Greek restaurant the previous evening — Papaspiros — and seeing how they had done total injustice to the food that was so incredibly worthy, I loaded up my Canon cameras and was ready for action. I was not going to endure another moment of my Nikon cameras making me bark after watching my photos.

Minestrone

Because it was a bit nippy outside, I wanted something to take the edge off of the chill. So, I had minestrone soup. Yes, it is so customary, but rarely is it botched and flares my snobbish sensibilities. If I had a baguette, I could have enjoyed bottomless bowls of the minestrone this day. Nothing spectacular in how it was prepared other than it was just good soup with ingredients that harmoniously resulted in something satisfying to the palate. In addition to the minestrone, I had bruschetta pomodor. Thinking that there would be perhaps four pieces of bread topped with diced tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and mozzarella cheese, I was fine placing the order. Then there were eight pieces of bread that came to the table and these were not small, bite size. Although not substantial, there still was quite a bit to tackle. Honestly, the bruschetta pomodor was an appetizer and one that made me smile. The bread was grilled, indeed, and the tomatoes were plump with flavour, even though they were diced small. With a tall glass of cranberry juice at hand, I slowly worked all eight of those bruschetta pomodor slices to their vanishing point. I had a craving anyway and there simply was no need to leave anything so tasty for later.

Bruschetta Pomodor

Then the seafood pasta that I had ordered came to the table. Oh my God! Truly Geppetto’s serves up everything the Chicago Way. It was large, colossal, Godzilla! A huge plate of linguine with large shrimp, clams, and sun dried tomatoes begged me to get to working on it, taunting me and telling me that I needed to be stuffed. I obliged. For all the great flavour that the dish had, there was also a noticeable amount of salt that had been added. After being diagnosed with high blood pressure years ago, I eliminated salt from my diet and that pretty much was around the time that I had begun my entry into ethnic dining where the seasoning was an ideal substitute for sodium. Fast forward to the present and anything with too much salt almost gives the feeling of adding weight to my tongue. There was not going to be a case of me sending the dish back to the kitchen for modifications. Instead, I ate three-fourths of the seafood pasta and imbibed several glasses of water.

Seafood Pasta

The prices at Geppetto’s are a little higher than expected for a restaurant that does not have the associated pomp and flair. Then again, the portions are sizeable enough to defeat a burly lumberjack, so I stand corrected in my observation of the cost. The food compensates for the stoic service and good food is always a trump card at any restaurant or cafe. Geppetto’s is supposed to boast the best pizza around. I cannot say that I will add a calendar notification to test that assertion. However, there are several other dishes on the menu that I may indulge at some time in the future. In the meantime, I shall think of all the wonderful ethnic eateries that have left me rumpled and dreamy over the past six years.

Geppetto's Pasta & Pizza on Urbanspoon

And Now for Our Regularly Scheduled Program

To the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy”

Eat, they told me
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
There’s so much food to eat
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I made an ugly face
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I had a foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Baked Goat Cheese and Tomatoes with Toast

When my flight from Washington, DC, landed in Chicago, I was not a good ten paces in the terminal before I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. If I had my way to describe things, I would say that God shows favour in Chicago because after several months in Washington, DC, the last people to turn their backs on that city are those who choose to live there. It is very humbling having someone scoff at your career in data management and statistics — that being a politician or a lawyer is viewed as worthy of sitting to the left of God, I guess. And of all things to lack, the food was so excessively bland that I wanted to bark. But the one guarantee that I knew with certainty was that I was returning to Chicago, to a world of culture and a variety of damn good food.

Shrimp Chipotle Fettuccini

I spent Saturday unpacking, washing, and packing again because I will be going away for the Christmas holiday. Happiness! On top of those personal chores, I was running all over the city test driving Volkswagen Jetta cars. Merry Christmas to me. By the end of the day and into the night, I was too tired to contemplate cooking and I did not want the smell of take-away in my new car. So I slept that night with a huge smile on my face and an agenda for the next day.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

It was off to Hyde Park in Chicago to a familiar restaurant of days past — Medici on 57th Street. Again, I say that I do believe God shows favour in Chicago. With good parking Karma, I found myself going into Medici and greeted with the most pleasant smile before taken to a seat where I could begin to overcompensate for the last few months in Washington, DC. Because the restaurants in Chicago have some allowance for a tweak to a menu item, I handed the menu back to the waitress and told her to surprise me. Out came a cup of baked goat cheese with chunky tomatoes and pesto, served with toast. Let me just say that you have not had a dip worthy of delighting yourself over until you have had the baked goat cheese at Medici on 57th. The waitress had said that it was her favourite and I played like it was marginally okay all while I did everything except run my finger around the inside of the bowl and lick it. Then came the shrimp chipotle fettuccine and broccoli. I have had fettuccine with shrimp, but spicing it up with chipotle added a twist that I had found surprisingly outstanding. The broccoli was crunchy, but not raw because it must have been steamed. It burst with flavour. And the shrimp were plentiful, considering they were large and plump.

Apple Pie ala Mode

The shrimp chipotle fettuccine was incredibly filling. But the waitress had said to me that I should have a dessert. So, I had the entrée boxed up so that I could take care of business with some dessert. She recommended the apple pie, which came with large slices of apple and caramel. This apple pie had a shortbread crust. Imagine that. Now imagine having that lovely bowl of bliss with vanilla ice cream. My eyes rolled about in my head and I stifled the moans and groans that would have escaped my lips had I been at my home eating the dessert. To wrap up the whole experience, I had Mexican hot chocolate. We are not talking about melted chocolate in hot water with cinnamon sprinkled on top. No, this was a cup of scalded milk and chocolate with cinnamon do correctly. I finally moaned, much to the laughter of those around me.

I will admit that family in DC did take me to some restaurants that were worthy of writing home about. Then again, those restaurants were in Maryland and in Virginia. It may be because of gentrification that Washington, DC, falls short of cultural diversity and that kind of absence hampers cultural norms like food selection. Chicago celebrates cultural diversity and even the gentrification that is filling in the Windy City still does not have enough influence to have the food pander to a single palate. If you are eating Stepford cuisine in Chicago, chances are it is because you are snacking on a frozen dinner.

I’m going to burn in hell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I ate too much to tell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I need elastic pants
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Another foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Medici on 57th

Medici on 57th on Urbanspoon