Revisiting Caffe De Luca

Caffe de Luca

After a beautiful Saturday with a sky devoid of clouds and temperatures in the 70′s, Sunday began with overcast skies, temperatures in the 50′s, and a constant breeze. The only good thing about the rain is that it probably washed away a bit of the pollen that had been in the air. Nothing can be more aggravating than the feeling of having pepper in your eyes. But, hey, that does nothing to my insatiable appetite. In my blue Jetta that had a bit of a green colouring to it from a light powdering of pollen, I was on my way in search of food. And once I realized how irritating it is to find parking in Chicago proper, I drove out to the neighbouring suburb of Forest Park. Plenty of options available and me being decisive, I walked into Caffe De Luca at 7427 Madison Street.

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

I recalled Caffe De Luca when there was the location in Wicker Park. I had gone on my first visit one New Year’s Eve when I wanted to have dinner without entertaining a lot of friends being scrambled about where to dine, when to gather, what to wear in case we were going to a New Year’s Eve party afterwards, and why the restaurant had to be in Wicker Park. I went alone and was a hundred miles past the last exit to Overjoyed when all was said and done. The Forest Park location has the same rustic feel and layout, which were least of my culinary concerns. It were the flavours of Italy I was hoping to relive.

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Now, because I went during brunch time, I knew I was not going to have spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, pasta, or any of that. No, I started with a broccoli and cheddar quiche and a mixed fruit of honeydew melon, grapes, cantaloupe, and pineapples. The quiche was fluffy. Last time I had a quiche that fluffy was at Eastgate Cafe in Hyde Park, where the owner had explained that she preferred an airy quiche to a dense one. After finishing the quiche and fruit, I then had grilled shrimp and asparagus salad. This salad could be within the top 5 pescatarian delights. Worthy of each bite, I devoured it as reasonably slowly as possible to keep from looking like a man who hadn’t eaten in several days.

The brunch was very satisfying and the price was fantastic. I shall have to return for dinner one evening to see if I can recapture the sensation I experienced during my visit to Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park. Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park is no longer on the Wicker Park landscape, so I shall remove my first post. However, here are the compositions that I captured when I went. Sigh. I miss having Caffe De Luca so close to home.

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Grilled Calamari

Grilled Calamari

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara

Tortellechi Carbonara

Espresso with Honey

Espresso with Honey

Tiramisu, Coffee

Tiramisu, Coffee

Caffe de Luca on Urbanspoon

I Am 45

The Williams Smile

The Williams Smile

On 5 April 2013, at 1:15 PM, I officially turned 45. As a mathematician I tend to be more exact with things than necessary. When I turned 30, I was too busy planning the celebratory birthday party to realize that I had reached a third decade in my life. By the time I turned 40, family had a huge birthday party for me and it was just another day. Now that I am 45, it occurred to me that the next big birthday for me will be 46, not 50 as some would say. Truth be told, I look forward to each year with more excitement than the previous years.

As I get older I am aware of more things that are pertinent in my Disney.

  • There are things I am not supposed to have. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are places I am not supposed to go. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are people I am not supposed to have messing up my happiness. I am ecstatic over that.
  • Time goes by faster now than it did when I was a kid. Summer break used to last forever.
  • I am with the person who makes me happy. Note the strikethrough. That alone shaves 20 years off my face.
  • Smiling removes wrinkles naturally. To think that people pay for Botox injections and nip-tucks.
  • I am aware of the passage of time, as there isn’t enough time to eat all that I’d like to eat.
  • Food is my lover and anyone who thinks otherwise should be fitted for a straight jacket. (Being careful so my high school crush doesn’t read this statement.)

Instead of a huge party with dozens of people milling around and me not getting a chance to sit and talk with any of them at great length, I opted for more personal celebratory gatherings with friends, family, and my high school crush who kept teasing me with the promise of baking me an Italian cream cake. I started the morning meeting some friends for breakfast. With it being my birthday, they wanted me to be “in the moment,” which meant we were not doing anything with an ethnic leaning to have me switch into blogger mode. That didn’t mean I should leave my camera at home. So, into the bag went the camera and out the door I dashed to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago. I was in blogger mode and that was inevitable. Super service, contrary to some disturbing reviews I’ve come across, and I will chalk that up to us getting to the restaurant at 7:00 in the morning when everything was new and patrons with bitterness, indecisiveness, and wants for vicious reviews had not poured in.

Cafe au lait. Eggs scrambled well with cream cheese. Cubano French toast.

Cafe Au Lait

Cafe Au Lait

The cafe au lait was not bitter, not in the least. I drank it without any sugar and said silently, “Intelligentia, you have competition.” By the second cup, I was saying, “Intelligentia what?” Nothing spectacular about cream cheese in my eggs, as that is a staple for my desired preparation of eggs. Where I wanted to stand up and sing “Gino Marmalade,” was with the Cubano French toast. I would gladly have enjoyed a petite mort after the first bite of the French toast in guava marmalade with a cream anglaise, topped with strawberries, guava, and granola. The lyrics would have been something like:

Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya da da da
Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya here
Mocha chocolata ya ya
Hungry Gino Marmalade

Scrambled Eggs

Scrambled Eggs

The prices for the menu items are reasonable. The service was outstanding. The food was so yum-inspiring that I could have sung an aria. Whatever gripes reviewers on Yelp have with Marmalade, I will return and I will have to make it a point to fight the urge to stand up and launch into the following lyrics:

Voulez-vous manger avec moi ce jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vouz manger avec moi cest jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Cubano French Toast

Cubano French Toast

For lunch, I met with two friends I had worked with when I was driving off the map to the wonderful West Suburbs. We met at Wok’n Fire at 1576 W. Lake Street in Addison, Illinois. It’s the usual big-box atmosphere like what you get at Pei Wei Asian Diner and at PF Chang. But the aromas made the restaurant smell less of a buffet cafeteria and more like some good food was being prepared in the kitchen. After laughter about how the company had become a revolving door and joking about how some people manage to get promotions although they take vacation time in impromptu, unscheduled fashion, it was time for food. Per recommendation from one of my friends, I ordered Schezuan tilapia. Served with brown rice, spinach, and in a Schezuan sauce with red peppers, onions, broccoli, and mushrooms, lunch had a wow factor that left me weak in the knees. I had to drive back into the city and doing it behind the wheel of a manual shift after such a fantastic lunch, I was glad to get home and take a nap in advance of dinner. But before my siesta, I had a long chat with Ma Williams who boasted about how proud she was of me and how she’s glad I have been taking care of myself and some other mushy stuff that indicates I was never a disappointment. Not many mothers can say that and we Williams offsprings became high-end. And then she asked me if I had made use of the cake pans she sent to me for my birthday gift. Ma Williams always gets me the birthday gifts that make me smile.

Schezuan Tilapia

Schezuan Tilapia

Now, let me just say that I slept so good during the afternoon that I had thought I slept a bit too long. There was no way that I wanted to miss my birthday dinner. Sure, I can go to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, at any time. But for a proper celebration, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, it was necessary for me to get up and be ready to head out for a worthwhile meal.

Flight of cheeses — Dante, l’amuse gouda, and sharp cheddar. Sunchoke arancini. Quiche. Salad. Flight of wine. Pot de creme.

Quiche and Salad

Quiche and Salad

Sunchoke Arancini

Sunchoke Arancini

The flight of cheeses came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, a flavourful jam, wafers, and bread. So perfect and we worked our teeth on the items that begged for us to continue. Yep, we even paused conversation so we could concentrate. The sunchoke arancini was several stops past the last exit to wonderful. Ingredients of hazelnut chimichurri, sunchoke puree, sunflower sprouts, and lemon made for a vegetarian’s plate of happiness. We smiled through each bite. The quiche was of the kind that the meekest person would clobber a corn-fed Indiana football player senselessly if the football player were to mess with the mild person’s quiche. We’re talking about a quiche with Sarvecchio parmesan, caramelized onions, and parsnip puree served with braised spinach. You simply will not stop making comment about how delicious it is after each bite. Oh, and let me not forget to add that we each had flights of wine. Liquid bliss! For me, I told the server to bring a flight, any flight. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was my birthday and he did not disappoint — three reds, two from France and one from Chile. The flight paired well with everything. The dessert was a pot de creme — chocolate hazelnut pudding topped with a baked meringue. There is a special corner in hell for me after working that pot de creme with exaggerated facial expressions, the homemade butter cookies, and a cup of coffee that was made from a fine bean. As we teetered out of the restaurant, it was rather apparent why we all return there so much. And people who don’t like that assessment are sitting back saying, “I know better places.” I can only shake my head and say, “Umpf, umpf, umpf. Tell me anything.”

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

As a kid, I used to think that people in their 40’s were old. I am quite amazed at how my perspective has changed since, rather considerable if I may add. When I look in the mirror and the only things that can possibly give my age away are my balding head and the grey in my beard, I realize that I can shave and those indicators go away as well. When I think about how I had furrows in my brow and pessimism in my eyes during my twenties, none to be seen in my physical appearance now, it feels nice announcing my age. Because then I can watch the show when people start to actively debate me and call me a liar who wants to be older than he really is. And I smile, yet again removing any potential wrinkles.

Hello, my name is Gino Williams and I am 45 years old. Oh, and I am a food addict.

Marmalade on Urbanspoon Wok'n Fire on Urbanspoon

Hello, Nice to Meet You

East Gate Cafe

This past weekend was a rather busy one in a productive kind of way. I had agreed to bake cookies for my catering partner’s high school class reunion. Forgetting exactly how much effort is involved in baking a bulk, I spent all Friday night almost until sunrise Saturday and all day and night Saturday baking — ten dozen peanut butter cookies, ten dozen butter cookies, ten dozen macadamia white chocolate cookies, ten dozen oatmeal cranberry cookies, and ten dozen bittersweet chocolate chip coconut cookies. Sigh. Needless to say, I was like one of those medical interns who had finished medical school and had to pull a 36-hour shift. Add to that me entertaining guests who were visiting from out-of-state. I was reminded this past weekend that the body has an aggressive way of shutting down after sleep deprivation. But there was a necessary reward before my physiology started turning off the motor.

Iced Coffee

After dropping off the cookies at the reunion picnic, I had a little time to myself before going to collect my friends from their individual outing sans me. Not too far from where the drop-off point was for the reunion is a small stretch of shops and boutique restaurants in the Oak Park, Illinois, neighbourhood. Along Harrison Street, there is a quaint block of some of the most inviting establishments. Earlier this year, a past co-worker and I had gone into this East European coffee-house after we’d had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Eastgate Cafe, owned by a couple, at 102 Harrison Street is a magnet with appeal. The atmosphere was one akin to going into someone’s home and mostly because it was an apartment that had been converted into a coffee-house. Not only is the ambience welcoming, but also the disposition of the owners who interact with you as though they have known you for a great number of years. If I had to give an essence statement, I would say that the whole experience is like going to one of your favourite family member’s home.

Upon entry, the husband, who is Irish, said very casually, “I sense that you want an iced coffee.” With the heat and humidity playing in concert, an iced coffee was a great option. I responded that, yes, I would like an ice coffee and a sandwich along the seafood line. And so there was tuna salad on Italian bread with crisp lettuce, red delicious tomato, and a slightly spicy mayonnaise. Served with a potato salad that I will say is the best that I have had since I had last eaten any prepared by Ma Williams, I was a pleased man. Now, people will always say that no one prepares [fill in the blank] as good as their mothers, and I am one to convince myself of that same statement. However, the potato salad was mustard potato salad rather than mayonnaise potato salad. There is a bit of an accent added when mustard is used. And when there are not so many raw vegetable added in excess because the recipe lists them, there is no crunch factor to entertain while eating the dish. This was the case at Eastgate Cafe. Having taken a seat outside so that I could photograph the delights in natural light, the husband had stepped outside for a moment and inquired as to whether I was enjoying the tuna salad and potato salad, and if I wanted to have my photo taken. Oh, but I am too modest to be on the other end of the camera being caught with my mouth stuffed and eyes rolling around in my head.

Tuna Salad

The waitress who had brought my order to the table, had mentioned that there was live music on Friday nights and she also spoke of several dishes that Eastgate Cafe has on the menu. So not only is the cafe just one for coffee, desserts, and small dishes, but they also have substantial dishes. The wife, the other owner, is Serbian and introduces a bit of the old country into the experience. Aside from one other past co-worker and her twin sister, I have not had any exposure to Serbians in the metropolitan Chicago area. So finding Eastgate Cafe with some Serbian influence in it was perfect. And one dish that was not specifically Serbian, but a creation of the wife, was introduced to me and since I had a bit of room, I welcomed the recommendation. I had a Quiche that was made with feta cheese, roasted red peppers, and was light on spinach. Served with it were two small potato pancakes and a cup of fruit, consisting of watermelon, cantaloupe, honey-dew melon, pineapples, and grapes. When establishments say they are serving fresh fruit, they need to take a cue from Eastgate Cafe where the fruit is not only fresh, but it is also ripe enough that it does not crunch like celery. The potato pancakes, although not accommodated with a dollop of sour cream, were absolutely worthy. Where Eastgate Cafe really shines is with the Quiche. The feta cheese made the Quiche light and fluffy, not the usual dense Quiche you get when made with other cheeses. From looking at it, you could easily mistake it for a slice of homemade cheesecake. The Serbian owner had said that the Quiche was her creation, not a dish customary to Serbia. I loved her remark that people create with writing, painting, fine arts, and photography, as she pointed at my camera. She loves to create and express herself through food. That was the most enriching and enlightening commentary I have heard about food and it spoke highly of a passion she has. Outside of America, food is a reflection of culture, beliefs, customs, and community. The wife had captured that perfectly. It also explains why the cafe has such a draw.

Quiche, Fruit, Happiness

Before I left, the owners extended an invitation for a return to listen to some live music on Friday nights. There was no smug thank you for coming. There was no rushed antics to check on other customers. On request, I showed the photos that I had taken and we talked about the feel of Oak Park. When I had mentioned my past co-worker, the Serbian owner told me to bring her so that she could meet someone from “back home.” There is usually a sentiment, as an African-American or Black for those of us who fall in the Caribbean or African bailiwick that we are watched or discounted when we go to certain establishments. That is true and a hurtful thing that occurs more often than not. But there are countless moments like my visit to Eastgate Cafe where great food and outstanding service overshadows any possible wickedness for lack of embracing diversity. In Ma Williams’ home, I know that I am welcomed. And when the owners felt at ease enough to talk to me as an individual who they appreciated for walking into their place of business and then extended a genuine invitation for return visits, there is another place I will gladly go since I know I will be welcomed. Hello, Eastgate Cafe, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance.

Eastgate Café - Books/Gifts on Urbanspoon