Posts Tagged ‘pasta’

Buon Appetito – Our Favorite Italian Restaurants

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

we say:

Supposedly, if you give a baby hundreds of toys to choose from, he’ll get totally overwhelmed and not play with a single one.  We, like spoiled rotten babies, have had a similar reaction to reviewing Chicago’s Italian restaurants.  Chicago is home to some of the best Italian cuisine in the country, but where do we begin when there are literally thousands of Italian restaurants, one on almost every corner?  And how can we compare a place like Spiaggia to a neighborhood osteria?  And what about pizza? Pizza!  And how many Italian restaurant reviews will you, our friends, read before you fall asleep or abandon us forever?  Life is so complicated; we’ll just do our best and hope you like us anyway.  Andiamo.

Our Top Five:

  1. Enoteca Roma (Wicker Park) – We love this small, somewhat low-key (for Wicker Park) eatery for its incredibly flavorful bruschettas, cheeses and pastas.  We love the family-style approach and the way they pour their polenta onto marble slabs.  We love their patio too.   Really though, there’s no trick to why they’re first on our list; the food is superior and that’s what matters.
  2. Rose Angelis (Lincoln Park) - We doubt you’ll find this one on many other Best Italian lists, but you should.  It’s hard to beat Rose Angelis’  huge portions of hearty, homemade pasta.   Formerly the first floor of a home, the cozy layout and setting will charm your pants off (they’ll already be unbuttoned to make room for your pasta baby).  As impossible as it may seem, try to leave room for one of their spectacular desserts.
  3. Piccolo Sogno (River West) – A “little dream” come true.  This upscale Northern Italian restaurant’s menu is as fabulous as its decor.  An impressive place to take out-of-towners, but make your reservation well in advance.  Their mozzarella cheese melts on the tongue and their wine list is impeccable.  They use authentic ingredients combined in wonderful ways, presented artfully.  If you go to their website, be prepared to rock out to some dramatic Italian crooning that starts off like a smooth jazz rendition of the theme song from St. Elmo’s Fire.
  4. Anteprima (Andersonville) - This one almost didn’t make the cut because one of us finds it underwhelming, but here it is, numero quattro, and nobody has to sleep on the couch.  Everyone’s a winner!  Anteprima serves rustic Italian dishes with local, seasonally-inspired ingredients.  The atmosphere is warm and cheerful and totally unpretentious.  They also make their own limoncello. Yum.
  5. Cibo Matto (Loop) and Pelago (Gold Coast) – Between these two, it’s toss up.  Both are trendy and oozing with swank.  Cibo Matto is located in the ultra-hip Wit hotel; Pelago in the boutique Raffaello Hotel.  Cibo Matto is over-the-top stylish while Pelago is more reserved and sophisticated.  Both serve Italian gourmet with a modern twist.  We suggest the Pollo a Griglia at Cibo Matto and the fettuccine with truffles at Pelago.

Our Favorites (In A League of Their Own):

Our Favorite Neapolitan-style (woodfire oven) PizzaAntica Pizzeria (Andersonville)

Our Favorite Italian Sandwiches – Narrowly beating out the neighborhood fave, Piatto Pronto (Edgewater) is L’Apetito Imported Italian Foods (Near North Side).   Check out this Italian deli and delicacy store and get an amazing sandwich to go.  Avoid the tourist trap in the Hancock and stop by the deli in the cathedral district. We suggest Il Parma. It’s topped with the best fresh mozzarella to squeeze it’s way between two slices of bread.

Our favorite Italian Chicagoan – This Guy:

We’re still in search of our favorite gelato.  Got tips?

If we missed one of your faves, use the comment section to let us know.  We’d love to try it …  or tell you why we omitted it (probably because of the weird smell and the cockroaches).  In the meantime, we’ll just be sitting here, staring at our toys and throwing temper tantrums.

Girl and the Goat, Fulton Market

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

she said:

Hey, remember when Pig Face was an insult rather than a gourmet entrée?  Remember when brains and bones went into the trash rather than onto the menu?  When beef tongue was a by-product rather than a delicacy?  No?  That’s okay.  Me neither.

Over the last ten years, charcuterie has become so trendy that it’s almost passé.   Good thing there’s a new craze: offal and end bits.  Last summer, I attended a pig roast where one hipster guest insisted that we save him the eyeballs.  Which we did.  And which he ate with delight, popping one shrunken orb into his mouth and then the other.

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with this trend.  It’s all the same to me and, really, what’s the difference between eating a muscle and eating an organ?  I’m simply pointing out that the same dishes (popular in most other countries, I realize) that would have once induced a gag reflex (in this country) now inspire a dainty napkin-to-lip dab and a breathy, Magnifique!

I think we can blame/laud Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, and her highly acclaimed restaurant, Girl and the Goat, for her place at the forefront of this meat movement.  Several people advised me that I wouldn’t be able to eat much at Girl and the Goat, so with that warning in my cap, along with the  letdown that usually accompanies so much buzz, I prepared myself for disappointment, even after waiting two months for our reservation.

Guess what?  I was blown away.  Yes, her menu features Bison Butt and Pork Belly, but it also features 10 truly spectacular vegetable-inspired dishes (I say veg-inspired, because they’re not all vegetarian. Even some of the desserts include pork). The dishes are “small plates” so we ordered 5 to share.

The highlights:

The Chickpea Fritters, though very salty, were a textural delight, served with goat feta and a mix of green and fried chickpeas, along with hazelnut hummus and a yummy red hot sauce.

The Roasted Cauliflower, tossed with mint, lemon juice, pickled peppers, pine nuts and parmesan (I think), was a startlingly fabulous flavor combination.

And my favorite:  the Kabucha Squash Ravioli, tossed in a mushroom ragout with popped capers, raisins, and brussels leaves.   The sauce, perhaps Thai-inspired, was reminiscent of a coconut curry and it almost made me weep.

As you may have guessed, I didn’t eat any animal parts so I’ll have to leave the meat review to my husband.   The point is, my gastro-delight was unhindered by my vegetarianism.  You don’t have to be a meat lover to fall in love with Girl and the Goat; you just have to be a food lover.  Plus, my herbivorous ways mean there’s more snout for all of you!

he said:

Of all the restaurants where we’ve eaten in the year and a half since I’ve been here, G&TG (acronyms!) is probably the most hyped. We’d heard good things, but also comments like, “Oh, it’s not as her good first restaurant, this is just a chance to cash in on her fame since she won Top Chef.”

To all those people I say,

“Stop hating.”

There is almost nothing to complain about at G&TG. I have one quibble, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, spare me a moment while I list what I loved:

The dark, large interior that reminded me of a loft. The blackened wood wall, looking like the survivor of a barn fire, that cut the dining room in two. The open view into the bustling kitchen. Our great waitress, who was so friendly I added her as a Facebook friend right there on my phone (not true, but our waitress rocked). The fact that they source their food from local farms. Loved all of it.

And oh my god, the soundtrack. The music in the background was like they tapped into my iPod. Maybe they took a peek at my playlist when I took my phone out to friend our waitress (still not true).  Classic rock, mixed with modern rock, Americana and folk. The wife and I caught ourselves mouthing the words to some of our favorites.

Comfortably creative

On to the food, specifically the meat. This is the only part I didn’t love (my quibble, as promised). I really, really liked it…which is great and puts this restaurant in the Top 5% of places I’ve eaten. But there wasn’t that eye-opening, surprising, wow-moment when I popped a bite into my mouth. The kitchen is doing something inventive with traditional comfort food tastes, and that’s a big task. Inventive and traditional are awkward bedfellows, despite the fact that more and more restaurants are trying to pair them.

I love their creativity and what they’re trying to accomplish. But I only really, really liked their food.

Beyond the veggie dishes, which I enjoyed a lot, I had the Goat T-bones and the Pig Face. The T-bones actually reminded me of buffalo wings. They’re much smaller than a T-bone steak, and I was told to eat them with my hands. They’re perfectly cooked, with a spicy barbecue sauce that gives them a little kick. Fun, tasty and just as messy as wings.

The Pig Face came recommended. Delicious and decadent with all the pork fat and a fried egg on top. It was cooked crispy, then softened by the fat and drizzled with caramel that was a sweet counter to the savoriness of the pork. It came really close to a wow moment, but was so rich that the whole plate was a bit much for one person. Get this dish if you go, but try to share it.

I was hoping to be blown away by the food, and it came up a bit short. But maybe I should appreciate the fact that this restaurant had me asking for Pig Face and I wasn’t making a bad joke. I’m kind of blown away by that.

Enoteca Roma, Wicker Park

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

he said:

It must be the place to have birthday dinners in Chicago. I’ve been to maybe 5 birthday dinners since I moved here, and Enoteca Roma was the site of two of them–the first one I’ve ever been to here, and my most recent, which was a few weeks ago.

The first time, I had no idea what to expect. This was back when the lady and I were still long-distance relationshipping, and I flew in from New York on a Friday when she had plans. There was nothing definite scheduled between us*, so I took a cab to meet her at her friend’s birthday party. At Enoteca Roma. I thought I’d be eating a cardboard burger at the airport, and I ended up with one of the best Italian meals I’ve ever had.

So when I found out we were going back, I couldn’t have been more excited.

*If you’ve ever made regular trips between Chicago and New York, you know why we didn’t clear our schedules. Seriously, like 75% of the time the flight is delayed.

The deal with Enoteca Roma, and the reason I think it’s such a hit with the birthday crowds, is the Mangia Mangia meal. It’s a never ending parade of deliciousness.  They cater the portions to the size of your party, though with the amount of food they bring out, I think they may have trouble counting. They could have fed a party twice our size.

I’ve also heard good things about the supposedly awesome back patio, though I’ve never eaten outside, and the connected bakery, Letizia’s, though I’ve never had room for dessert.

So, the food. You start with cheese, meat and bread.  And let me tell you, they had me with the smoked and cured meats. I could have put this course on an endless loop and died a smoked, cured and happy man.

Then comes the bruschetta and salad, which would be a highlight in most cases, but here, they’re surrounded by such greatness, you forget about them. I hope these dishes don’t mind, because we were good friends at the time, but by the time the end of the meal came, we’d grown apart.

After this course, it gets serious:

Mussels. Delicious, with plenty of bread to soak up the stew.

Polenta topped with a meat sauce. Kapow. But don’t fill up, we’re only halfway through.

Italian sausage. Tasty and moist, though a little outdone by the other courses.

And assorted pastas. Noodles, raviolis, white sauces, red sauces. It’s just one after the other, delicious dish after delicious dish.

I think that one more reason that this is such a popular birthday spot is that most people can only manage to enjoy this much good food once a year. This is some wonderful Italian food. I can’t wait for my next friend’s birthday party.

she said:

The Mangia Mangia meal is exactly what you should not be eating just weeks before you have to squeeze into a wedding dress.  I don’t care.  It was worth every creamy, cheesy, carb-laden calorie.

Unlike my guy, I am not a fickle friend to the bruschetta.  This wasn’t  bunch of diced tomato crap scooped onto bread.  Oh, no.  There were ten different kinds!  To name a few: black olive pate and capers, cannellini beans and red onions, strawberries with mascarpone and balsamic reduction, pear with honey and parmesan, brie and apple.  I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.  I will never forget you, sweet bruschetta.

Then came the tableside polenta.  Total one upper.  Like a messenger from the heavens, our waiter poured the warm cornmeal onto a slab of cool marble.  With loving precision, he topped it with spoonful after spoonful of sauce.  Since there were several vegetarians at the table, he covered ours in quattro formaggi, a creamy four-cheese medley that’s making my mouth water as I type.

And the pasta.  Oh, the pasta.  The orecchiette overflowed with garlicky, peppery flavor.  Nothing,  however, could have prepared me for the ecstasy that was the homemade pear ravioli, served in a walnut cream sauce.

I’m all for making dinner at Enoteca Roma a birthday tradition, but why limit it to birthdays when there are so many days that could be turned into perfectly good excuses to feast?  I mean, what’s wrong with Groundhog Day?  Nothing!  Or Pulaski Day?  Or how about Secretary’s Day?  Secretaries love spaghetti!  And don’t forget Flag Day! And Tax Day and Earth Day and Derby Day and Opposites Day…

Otom, Fulton Market

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

she says:

After our incredible experience at Moto, we decided to check out its sibling restaurant and next door neighbor, Otom, for our anniversary.

When we first arrived, I thought it would be a perfect place to take my girlfriends who are traveling to Chicago next weekend for my bachelorette soiree.  The space is chic and ultra-contemporary, with bare brick walls and white wood floors.  The starkness is offset with large striped curtains and orange chairs that reminded me of Tetris blocks.  Fabulous cocktails enhance the trendy feel and the prices are reasonable for an upscale restaurant in the warehouse district.

They’re doing a lot of things right at Otom…

  1. The Pale Moon martini, made with vodka, lychee syrup, house sour and vanilla bitters, was delicious.
  2. The butter changes daily.  Our warm bread came with truffle honey butter that nearly took my breath away.
  3. The Forager’s Plate, which is their vegetarian entrée, was quite impressive.  It also changes daily; mine was a risotto cake served with grilled baby portabellas, fiddleheads* and a variety of accompanying greens, flavored with what tasted like a sesame-based reduction.
  4.  The presentation was as artful as the interior design.

But, I was much less impressed with:

  1. The “mac and cheese” (quotation marks theirs and well-deserved) – made with trofie pasta, béchamel and peas – was bland and dry.
  2. The gnocchi in the German potato salad appetizer was so doughy that I wondered if they’d forgotten to cook it.
  3. The wait between courses and drinks was inexcusable, not that they even tried to excuse it.

Also, I must share this anecdote and warning.  Don’t put your purse on the floor. Find a way to hang it on the weird cubey chairs.  A light in the floor burned my purse so badly that the bottom peeled off and when I picked it up, it skimmed my foot and resulted in a blister.  I’m not making this up.  When we told the staff, they apologized but offered nothing to compensate for the ruined bag and seared foot.   A different kind of person would take advantage of this liability. Me?  I just blog about it.

Anyway, I may not subject my bachelorette party to Otom, but I probably will go back some time.   The good parts were excellent and I learned from my experience to avoid their botched pasta interpretations.   As for the long waits, maybe they were having a bad night.  I’ll give them another chance.  If they do me wrong again, I’ll simply place my bag on the floor lighting and stay an extra hour.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, purse fire.  That’s what I always say.

* What are fiddleheads?  They’re the adorable and tasty unfurled fronds of young fern. They look like this:

Cute, right?

he said:

I’m on a bit of an unlucky roll here. Just as it happened to me at Anteprima, I got my hopes up about Otom and was let down. However, to be fair, I would consider Anteprima to be in the ”Oh well, my expectations were too high” letdown category. Otom, for me, was in “What’s that Lassie, Otom fell down a well?” letdown category.

Going in, I was under the impression that as Moto’s sister restaurant, Otom was run by the same chef, Homaro Cantu. I thought Otom may be the cheaper bistro version of that molecular gastronomic delight. It was not, and Cantu apparently has nothing to do with this place.

That misconception is my fault, not the restaurant’s. But I don’t want you going in with the same idea.

I found the menu to be slight, and the food to be uninspired. Unlike my lovely fiance, I liked the German potato salad gnocchi, though the texture was odd. My smoked pork chop was just boring. And the mac and cheese wasn’t even worth finishing.

So, if the lady wants to try it again, I’m not sure who she’ll go with. I have no interest in going back.

Sorry that this post is so short, but like the menu, Otom left me uninspired.

Anteprima, Andersonville

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

he said:

It’s taken me too long to get to Anteprima.

As a resident of Andersonville for the last 6 months, I’ve often been asked if I’d eaten there… like, every time I tell someone I live in Andersonville. And when I started blogging about Chicago food, well, you can imagine. So I got the picture; it was a place worth visiting.

Perhaps that big buildup set me up for a letdown. While there were things I really liked about the meal the Gal and I shared with parents there this past weekend, I left disappointed.

So much to like

Our parents were in town for our engagement party, and so we had to show them a good time. We love showing off Andersonville and the great restaurants on Clark to out-of-town guests.  And to be fair, Anteprima did the trick. Our group left very happy and impressed with their meal.

Part of their impression had to do with the great service we had, and the warm Italian kitchen style interior. It’s just a really cool restaurant.


The food left me unimpressed. When I asked the waitress about the dish I had my eye on, the pancetta wrapped lamb loin, she told me it was “phenomenal.” Honestly, how often do you hear anyone use the word phenomenal? I couldn’t pass up this opportunity, if for no other reason than my Roget’s Thesaurus would insist that I reward her diction.

And it was good. There’s nothing wrong with good, but when you expect phenomenal, good is a let down. It was a bit dry, the sliced pieces of lamb were a little too thin, and the fricassea it was served on was forgettable.

We also orded the assorted appetizer plate to start, and again, good (read: letdown).

I want to give this place another chance. It looks like they have a great outdoor spot, and my meal was above par.  Maybe if I go another night and order one of the many other enticing dishes on the menu, I’ll love it.

Uh oh, there I go getting my hopes up again.

she said:

I want to say two things about Italian cuisine.  First, it’s probably my favorite type of food.  Second, I am rarely floored by it, at least not in that - oh my god what is this magic happening in my mouth? I don’t want this ecstasy to end, why do I have to swallow? kind of way.  Maybe it’s because Italian food  is ubiquitous in American culture.  Maybe it’s because I almost always know what I’m eating, down to each herb, and have a pretty good idea of how I would prepare it in my own kitchen (though it wouldn’t taste anywhere close to as good, I’m sure,  and I just gave my homemade pasta maker to Goodwill).   I love Italian food for the same reasons I love my own favorite recipes; they taste really really good and they rely upon fresh ingredients.

Thus,  I must admit, “phenomenal” is a tad hyperbolic, but I do think the food at Anteprima is excellent.  It’s creative in its ingredients and presentation and I enjoyed every bite.  Both the ambiance and the menu are upscale without being pretentious.  Is Anteprima extraordinary?  Not mindblowingly so, but that’s not what they’re going for.  They do what they do very well. 

We ordered the starter assortment for the table and I was particularly impressed by the grilled fennel.  For my entree, I had the ricotta ravioli, which is tossed in a wonderful butter sauce and topped with English peas, parmesan and slivered mint leaves.  Outstanding.  I sopped up every last morsel with my bread.

The wine list was extensive; the Orvietto was particularly nice with the pasta and – this is my favorite part – they make their own limoncello.  If you’re not familiar with it, limoncello is a lemon liqueur that’s usually served as a digestivo.  I had it for the first time in the Amalfi Coast, about ten years ago, and I’ve never missed a chance to have it since. 

My only complaint is that Anteprima is a bit noisy – we had a hard time hearing one another – and hot, even on a cool night, which it was when we were there.  Don’t let that stop you, though.  I don’t have a single regret about our choice.  It’s perfect  for a special night out with your sweetie (but don’t get his hopes up first) or an impressive neighborhood spot to take out-of-towners.

Cibo Matto, Downtown Chicago

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

he said:

When we first walked in to Cibo Matto, my friend Joe leaned over and quipped, “This place is pretty trendy right now. Let’s hope it’s good.” I silently agreed.  I don’t know why, but I have an inherent distrust of trendy restaurants. In my mind, when I hear trendy I think, “too much presentation, not enough preparation.”

Cibo Matto is located in the Wit Hotel, below their hyped rooftop bar.  The Gal and I tend to enjoy restaurants that serve up great food in an unpretentious environment, and Cibo Matto, with its dazzling décor, did not seem to fall into this category at first blush.

But I had no need to worry. From the attentive service to the lovingly prepared dishes, this was a great dinner.

Our group started with a round of appetizers. The sea scallops, served on top of a celery root puree,  were tender and fresh, a really good dish even though I don’t like seafood much. The burrata, beet and arugula salad was also really good.

“How’d They Do That?” Grilled Chicken

My main dish was surprising. I ordered Pollo a Griglia, grilled chicken. I figured it would be good because grilled chicken is almost always good. Often forgettable, but good. Cibo Matto’s grilled chicken wasn’t forgettable in the slightest.

The main thing that stands out is how crispy and salty the skin was.  That was balanced by meat that was really tender and moist. Rarely do I find myself wondering how a certain effect was achieved, but I was wondering how the chef pulled off this feat.  I heard a rumor that it’s baked with pancetta.

Don’t Forget Dessert

By the time our entrée dishes were cleared, I thought I was done with surprises. But the desserts had more in store for me. It was a pretty straightforward menu, with gelatos, sorbets and a chocolate tort, but they were all delicious. The honey gelato especially was unlike anything I’d ever had before.

When we left, we weren’t talking about how trendy the restaurant was at all. We were talking about how wonderful our meals were. And how we’d like to come back.

she said:

Cibo Matto means, in Italian, “crazy feast.”* Did our meals live up to the name?  Were they, as promised, crazy?  I suppose not, but I will say this, Cibo Matto is doing something very different with Italian food and I’m pretty damn impressed.

For my entrée, I ordered the Caramelli.  Caramelle, in Italian, means candy.  Caramelle pasta resembles a piece of candy wrapped in plastic.  The one pictured to the right isn’t from Cibo Matto.  Mine was stuffed with burrata cheese, lined up in a row, and tossed in braised  lemon peel, diced asparagus, garlic and olive oil.  It was delightful.  I now will employ a new adjective, one that I’ve never used to describe pasta.  Drumroll, please…My pasta was refreshing.

I also tried the risotto, which was gorgeously buttery and saffrony.

And the desserts.  Oh Lord, the desserts.  We ordered several for the table; it was our dear friend Chrissie’s birthday.  The gelatos and sorbets are homemade.  I second the honey gelato recommendation and would add the bitter chocolate gelato and mint sorbet, but only if you combine them in your mouth.  Think frozen Thin Mint.  The Tutti Frutti, a white mousse dish, was less remarkable.

If you can actually find a place to stand (sitting won’t be possible), have a nightcap on the rooftop bar.  It offers an impressive view of the city.

Both Cibo Matto and the bar have garnered the kind of trendy hype that illicits foodie backlash.  I’ve read a ton of bad reviews and I admit, the whole experience is pretty swanky.  Even the bathroom sinks are hip.  I enjoyed our visit despite of all this because the food was exquisite and inventive.

*I love me some Italian food.  I lived in Italy, for the love of Pete.  However, there are very few Italian dishes that I would define as “crazy,” whether I’m in an American-Italian pizza parlor or an itty-bitty restaurant in Sicily that serves, exclusively, horse.  Often, Italian dishes surprise and delight me.  Rarely are they crazy.  In fact, the only time I’ve used that adjective to describe food was at Moto.

Green Zebra, West Town

Friday, January 15th, 2010

he said:

Feeling a little full of toxins after our Christmas and New Years celebrating, my beautiful girlfriend and I wanted to go out to a healthy dinner. Also, we wanted it to be just the two of us. Holiday parties are fun and waist-expanding, but a little one-on-one time was needed as well.

So we chose Green Zebra based on the fact that it was vegetarian. Should be fairly healthy, right?

Not so green when you’re driving in circles

First things first, this place is really hard to find. My lovely and talented girlfriend had just gotten me an iPhone for Christmas, and we were using the map function to get us there, but that still didn’t help. We drove in circles looking for an unmarked door. If she hadn’t been there already and remembered what it looked like, we may never have found it.

Maybe a little valet would help, too. Not a lot of parking in the neighborhood.

So we finally find the spot, and I’m unimpressed as we walk in. The place looks like it’s an old set from Miami Vice. Too be fair, it doesn’t have as much neon.

Great vegetarian food

But once the food started coming out, I was happy. Being new to eating whole meals that do not include a slaughtered animal, I’m always a little concerned when I go to a place that has just vegetarian options. I need not worry, I always enjoy these restaurants.

And Green Zebra was very good. We started with a burrata cheese course that had tangerines, pumpernickel crumbs, and a salted cucumber that was the highlight of the meal. I don’t know the difference between salted cucumber and pickle, but it tasted different and it was delicious.

That first course was the highlight of the whole meal for me. I had a parsnip and leek soup that was great on a cold night and wonderfully creamy. The faro risotto was a little dry and too straightforward to be memorable.

And the last course I had was warm braised artichoke and beet salad. I thought I might be getting a salad, for some reason. But it was a pasta dish. Well, I get why the call it a salad, based on the ingredients, but it looked and tasted like pasta. I really liked it, though, and would definitely recommend it.

I don’t know if we accomplished our goal of eating smarter—we had a big meal. But I’m sure we ate healthier than we have been. And I know we ate very well at Green Zebra.

she said:

First, a confession. I ducked out on the parking fiasco. I was trying to look all cute for our date so I wore high heels, which is just plain stupid during the winter in Chicago. He dropped me off at the front door because he’s nice.

Green Zebra is, indeed, a mostly vegetarian restaurant, but by no means is it a restaurant designed to impress only vegetarians. The food is exquisite, artfully prepared and presented. It’s gourmet without pretense (and that goes for the service too). You’re encouraged to order 3-4 plates; the menu is visually separated into categories so you pick one dish per category. The plates are small (because small is big these days), but satisfying, and the food is mostly organic and locally grown. There are usually 1-2 meat options (chicken or fish), which, to me, feels like an unnecessary fail-safe against warding off skeptical vegephobics.

For my first dish, I ordered a shaved papaya and salted mango salad, which was good but not amazing, in part because the description created an expectation that the dish didn’t meet. The salad was mostly greens and if I hadn’t been told, I’d have had no idea papayas or mangos were present. I also had the sunchoke ravioli with a poached quail egg – yum – and the celery root crepe – double yum. Two thumbs up for creative approaches to winter vegetables.

I second Guy’s praise of the burrata cheese dish. The cheese was buttery and smooth with unique accompaniments. As for the decor, it’s not particularly appealing to me either. They’re going for super modern, but ended up with posh Floridian hotel lobby. You’ll get over it (if that’s necessary) with your first bite. Or your first sip. Though the cocktail selection didn’t jump off the page to either of us, the wine list is top notch.

La Bocca Della Verita and Cheese Balls

Monday, December 28th, 2009

she said:

December, your endless supply of yuletide gatherings have rendered my skinny jeans unbuttonable. I don’t have time to work out, much less prepare a tasty dish to share with my fellow merrymakers. My solution: cheese ball.* Not as in a person who makes bad jokes, but an actual ball of port wine cheese, rolled in nuts and prepackaged so that I can buy several and have one handy whenever the need arises, which, lately, is every other day. Done and done, right? I’m not so sure. When I told my friend Joanna about the Cheese Ball Solution, she said, “Ewwwww.”

Ewwwwww? I’m wondering, are cheese balls kind of, well, tacky? Until I know for sure, I’m temporarily abandoning Mission Cheese Ball.

But while we’re on the topic, I’d like to report that I had the most delicious ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella the other day at La Bocca della Verita in Lincoln Square. The ball, pictured below, is served with arugula and granny smith apple slices and it melts in your mouth.

I’m pleased as punch every time I visit Bocca. In part, I just like being in the charming Lincoln Square neighborhood, especially in the winter and especially when I’m thirsty for German beer. No matter the season, Bocca’s food is authentic and fresh, the service is wonderful and you might run into Blagojevich, like we did last weekend. He was in his car, talking on his cell phone in the only available parking spot in front of the restaurant while Patti ran in for carryout. I also ran into this Chicago writer, whose amazing books you should buy using the links I provide at the end of this post.  Seriously though, check out the daily specials when you go to Bocca. They have some wonderful selections. I had the spinach ravioli with marinara and was very happy.  They also have some very special specials, like truffle lasagna and this kalamata olive rigatoni thing that my friend ordered. Guy had meat lasagna that I couldn’t try.

When visiting Bocca, ask to be seated in Mike’s section. He knows his stuff.

*The Cheese Ball Solution will not help with the skinny jean issue.

he said:

Where do I come out on the port wine cheese ball issue? I’m pro. I don’t think they’re gritty, but they’re not the best cheese option around. Ask Gal about her baked brie dish sometime.

Fresh Mozzarella Cheese Dish

Now the cheese ball at Bocca was great. Not the best I’ve ever had, that would be a place called Peasant in NYC. I took Gal there one night when I still lived there. And that was the fresh mozzarella that taught me what fresh mozzarella can be. But Bocca’s was a creamy, fresh, mozzarella that disintegrated on the tongue and was worth the trip by itself.

*Hats off to her for resisting the urge to call me a cheeseball.** I know her knuckles were white with self-restraint when she was writing that.

**How much of a cheeseball? There’s a vintage toy store next door to Bocca and they had some old school, early 80’s Star Wars toys. I pointed them out to my dear girlfriend. I didn’t tell her I knew all the names of the characters on the boxes.

Atmosphere and Service

Bocca Della Verita has a wonderful feel to it, welcoming like a family. And not one of those screaming Italian families in the Sopranos, more like the Keatons in that one show with Michael J. Fox.

Our waiter, Mike, knew his wine and was quick with a reco. In fact, everyone there was friendly and enthusiastic about the menu. Which they should be.

In fact, I’d bet if I made one of my typical cheeseball jokes, they’d be nice enough to laugh along with it.

Antica Pizzeria, Edgewater

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

she said:

Gotta start somewhere, so why not down the street at our neighborhood pizza joint, Antica Pizzeria? I find myself dining at this peach of an eatery a few times a month, sometimes with Guy, sometimes with girlfriends. So, far I’ve never been disappointed. First of all, Mario (pictured right), the owner is awesome. I get the old one, two, Ciao, Bella! double cheek kiss every time I walk through the door. It’s BYOB, which always scores points in my book (though I might advise that you pick up a bottle or three on your way – the place across the street, though convenient, has a pretty limited selection). Half the time I go there, I end up sharing drinks with the tables around me like we’re all a big Italian family. It’s a warm and fuzzy neighborhood place and when I’m there, I feel like part of the community. A single tear trickles down my face. Seriously though, check it out. They’ll make room for you. Mario might even join you for a glass of wine. He prefers red.

Oh, and while you’re there, might I make a few recommendations? There’s no shortage of accolades for the Neapolitan style pizza. In case you’re not familiar, that’s the kind that’s cooked in a wood burning oven. The crust is thin and crisp. Each pizza is intended to serve one, but feel free to share. Parma is my favorite – I replace the prosciutto for capers, though generally Mario isn’t a big fan of substitutions. The bruschetta is also surprisingly tasty. I never order bruschetta (I think I overdosed in the 90′s), but Mario dropped a plate off for free and – hot damn – it’s really good. Like much of the menu, it changes seasonally. And finally, if you like truffle oil (I’d bathe in it if I could), try the Risotto Con Fungi Porcini. Really, I’ve never had a dish I didn’t like. Almost everything is homemade and lots of ingredients are imported from Italy. As with with most Italian places, there are lots of vegetarian offerings. Added bonus: he makes all the soups (so far in my experience) with veggie broth. Go Mario.

he said:

The first thing you notice when you walk in to Antica Pizzeria is the warmth. And that’s not just from the wood burning oven that’s cranking out those pizzas. It’s also the warmth of the owner, Mario, and his staff. Personal service is big here.

Of course, I’m just going through my first Chicago winter now and about the only thing I’m looking for these days is warmth.

Anyways, I’ve only eaten here twice, but I’ve loved it both times. Gal has been countless times, so the staff knows her right when she walks in. I think they look at me with questioning eyes—they love her and want to make sure I’m treating her right. And so I always leave good tips.

Wood Fired Pizzas

I’ve gotten the pizza both times, and both times it’s been great. The crispy crust has hints of the smoke from the wood. The ratio of cheese, sauce and crust is perfect.

The first time, the Quattro Stagioni, cooked with artichoke hearts, olives and mushrooms, then topped with prosciutto di parma. A salty treat, but each slice was a handful.

The second, the good old Pizza Margherita, which was excellent in its simplicity.

Grilled Calamari

The most amazing dish I’ve had so far was the grilled calamari appetizer. I’d never had calamari grilled before, only the fried calamari you get at bar and grilles. I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe something similar to the rubbery fried rings I knew. I was blown away.

The texture of the meat was similar to the fried stuff, but I’d call it bouncy instead of rubbery. I know that probably sounds weird, but it had a mouth feel that I can only describe as exciting. And without the fried skin, I really tasted the meat, which was very tasty. I recommend this dish.

So I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be back. If not, the staff might come knocking on our doors and drag us back anyway.