Interview: Joe Dela Pena of Warm Belly Bakery

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Christmas is not quite yet a dim memory, but you’ve got a whole new year ahead to get acquainted with a new kind of treat. If “dough” is your favorite cookie flavor, we’ve got great news. You’ll never have to be without your kind of cookies again now that Joe Dela Pena is gracing Chicago with two locations of his Warm Belly Bakery (1148 W. Monroe in West Loop, and 2472 N. Clark in Lincoln Park).

Cookie dough is where Joe, founder and owner of Warm Belly Bakery, started his dream. Despite his scientist-parents’ propensity to serve up very good chocolate chip cookies made from rolls of Nestlé Toll House Morsels’ dough, Joe the kid – and later the grownup – dreamed of eating cookies of all kinds that tasted as good as that dough. He began experimenting to find a cookie recipe that yielded cookies as close to the texture of cookie dough as possible without being mushy or raw-egg risky. And now Joe’s dream is already blossoming beyond his expectations. We met with him at his West Loop cookie café recently to talk about how it all got started.

Joe is the picture of a warm, caring guy. His kindness and self-deprecating humor shine out from his tall, substantial frame, which he describes laughingly as “Body by Cookies.” His West Loop space is a great place for a small, private meeting – cozy and inviting with tables and chairs, benches and walls full of art that’s custom-designed for Warm Belly, including a giant painting of the company’s cookie-belly logo.

Joe’s mom had taught him some Filipino baking techniques growing up, but his soul kept calling out for more, so he continued messing around in the kitchen. While still in college, Joe promised cookie rewards to investors as a way to drive funding for his 5K run for cancer – and was surprised when people contributed thousands of dollars. More than he bargained for, having to bake all those cookies – after he came home from work. He was amazed to find that people continued, after the race, giving more money for the cause just so they could get more cookies. It occurred to him then. Maybe there’s something going on here. A business hadn’t been on Joe’s radar, but…

Joe met his business partner at the gym where they both worked out. And the rest, as they say, is history. From locations in the trendy West Loop and recently a storefront in Lincoln Park, to a handy dandy food truck, vendor participation at Chicago Gourmet, and baking champion on Food Network, it looks like just the beginning. “We are where we are today from a combination of sweat and hard work and luck,” said Joe. The Warm Belly concept has become so popular that franchise companies are already after Joe to work with them. “We’re not there yet, though,” he said. “Things have got to be repeatedly successful and then proven to be replicable before we think about going there.” The new Lincoln Park location is a great start.

Joe’s heart was in his original profession of teaching English to high school kids. He remembers loving Shakespeare from an early age because of a book that printed Shakespeare’s English on one side and a modern English interpretation on the other. He said he learned pretty quickly how to interpret the language himself and as a result realized just how cool Shakespeare’s stories really were, even in modern times. His other passion was coaching kids in tennis. Many of his former students remember him fondly – we heard about him from one of his coachees Meredith, now a talented young physical therapist in Lincoln Park – one of the many who kept urging Joe to open a spot in Lincoln Park.

Reading nook for kids - and parents - Warm Belly West Loop
Reading nook for kids – and parents – Warm Belly West Loop

Now Joe’s humbly grateful to be mentioned in the same breath as some of Chicago’s finest chefs, and very happy that his new profession as Warm Belly cookie guru gives him lots of opportunities to interact with kids. Several schools near the West Loop location send a steady supply of young customers in for after-school treats, and parents become regular customers for birthday and other party orders. Joe makes sure when they come in the store, it’s more than cookies that keep them happy. The mantel over the fireplace – right under the Warm Belly custom-painted logo pic – is loaded with books for all ages to enjoy. “The array is always changing,” said Joe. “Occasionally a kid ends up walking out with one. Sometimes people bring in a new one.”

The office and kitchen for Warm Belly is next door in the rare-and-antique-car building owned by Joe’s business partner. Joe was kind enough to give us a look at his showroom-clean-and-organized storage and baking spaces and at the amazing array of flavorings, colors and add-ins that inspire him. Gives you a strong sense of how much imagination and care go into these cookies.

But nothing prepares you for the actual taste. On first sample, you may think, oh, these are pretty good. But then the magic sneaks up on you, and you find yourself irresistibly drawn to take another bite. And another. And if you’re not really careful, it’s shockingly easy to consume the entire quarter-pounder cookie at a sitting, particularly if you were hungry. We have had this issue with every flavor we’ve sampled. We leave it to you to make up your own WBB playlist of favorites. Uh, by the way, they deliver these addictive cookies via several popular services. Use Postmates to get them from the Lincoln Park location.

The array of flavors grows and changes on a regular basis – from the S’Mores cookies that won him the Food Network competition and the dozens of other flavors that rotate in and out, to the several that are fixtures of the store (PB&J, Double Chocolate Chip, etc.). One of our favorites is the beautiful purple Ube cookie flavored with a bean-like plant that’s indigenous to the Philippines where Joe’s family is from. We love that it’s topped with a lovely swirl of not-too-sweet lavender frosting that coordinates beautifully with the purple dough. Num! Check out the whole Warm Belly menu here.

Warm Belly tub o' cookies
Warm Belly tub o’ cookies

And by the way, we highly recommend you get at least your first batch in one of the WBB tins. The tin makes a perfect storage container – just the right amount of seal and breathability to properly preserve the slightly crunchy exteriors and cookie-dough-ish interiors of these giant treats. And of course, it’s infinitely refillable.

Not meant for those who like their cookies thin and crisp but, for anyone who loves cookie dough or soft, chewy cookies with a slight crunch on the outside, these are the bomb. Don’t say we didn’t warn you…

Follow Joe on Instagram @thejoedelapena and follow the cookies @warmbellybakery.

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4 food product reviews: cook, eat, store – enjoy!

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Giving gifts can be a huge challenge. Here are a few products we’ve sampled that you could consider for your kitchen-neatnik pals (Wellslock Storage Containers), your vegan-only circle (Just Sauces) and your chocoholic/sweets friends (American Heritage Chocolate and Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee). Or you, if the shoe fits.

Wellslock single-snap storage containers. The container portions are made of a really sturdy, super clear, freezer and microwave safe plastic (but don’t put it in there empty), and their unique locking lid is leak-proof with one double-snap. Took us a bit to figure out how to get the lids off smoothly. Sometimes the closure was so firmly seated that we felt we had to use a sharp knife to pry it open – which we were pretty sure was not the right approach. But once we figured it out, they come off pretty easily. The trick is to push/slide the lid to the opposite side once you release the double-snap closure tab. We love the sizes and shapes these come in – several interesting ones that you don’t typically find in storage containers. One configuration, for example, is perfect for holding two partially cut lemons or limes, or a giant red onion, or a cut avocado, notoriously difficult-fit items. And happily, these actually are airtight, unlike some containers that claim to be but then fail. These are great for storing food items or, really, anything you want to be able to see into the containers to identify. No cloudy plastic to obfuscate the contents. The lids are made of regular somewhat cloudy plastic, but the containers themselves are almost as clear as glass, without the weight or the breakability factors. Don’t know how much scratching will happen over time with using knives and forks in the dishes. So far no sign of that. Prices start at $9.99 for a single large container and then up to $29.99 for the 22-piece set. BPA free, freezer and microwave safe. Great gift for the foodie or crafty types on your gift list.

Just sauces - newly calorie-reduced
Just sauces – newly calorie-reduced

Just Sauces. This collection comes with mayo, Ranch, Chipotle and others. These are lower-calorie, vegan options for dressing salads, fish or whatever. You’ll need to test out the flavors for yourself; opinions seem to vary widely. Our tasters thought the taste and appearance were somewhat artificial (it does contain modified food starch and canola oil – said to be genetically modified), so it doesn’t feel like a “whole food” kind of product. But then, it’s vegan. Many of us meat-poulty-fish-egg-eaters might feel that way about anything vegan. And, just as some Amazon reviewers complained, our samples arrived with imminent expiration dates. This line of products is a great idea but may not yet have thoroughly overcome its birthing pains, but if you’re looking for vegan sauces to spark up your meals, these are a good starting point at a reasonable price ($4.69 and up on Amazon).

American Heritage chocolate bark
American Heritage chocolate bark

American Heritage Chocolate makes old-fashioned chocolate, and the company behind it is the Mars Wrigley Confectionary Company, so you know they know what they’re doing. Yes,  delicious chocolate in grated, chunk and other forms, as well as things with chocolate in them, like hot cocoa and bark and so on. Their downloadable original recipes for both savory and sweet chocolate treats are good to make for your holiday guests, or pass them on to your giftees so they can make the most of your gift of chocolate. The company has even established a historical research grant. Launched in 2013, the Forrest E. Mars, Jr. Chocolate History Research Grant, named after the company’s owner, awards grant funds for projects that investigate/educate the public on the history of chocolate or the chocolate making process from one or more cultural, historic or scientific perspectives. A good reason to gift friends and loved ones with chocolate, especially when it’s artisan-made and you can get 20% off (coupon on their website) from Amazon.

Daves Sweet Tooth December flavor of the month - Dark Chocolate Peppermint
Daves Sweet Tooth December flavor of the month – Dark Chocolate Peppermint

Dave’s Sweet Tooth Toffee comes in a bunch of toothsomely delicious flavors like Butter, Dark Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Cranberry Pecan, Maple Bourbon Pecan (oh, my!) and more. It’s chewy toffee, not the crispy-break-apart kind you might be thinking of. Like any good toffee, it will stick in your teeth somewhat – that’s part of the pleasure of toffee, right? And you can really taste the cream they use to make it. Num! It comes in jars and in cute pouches or mini-pouches with pictures of jars on them. They even sell a jar of scraps already broken up so you can use it as a topping. Or buy it in big variety tasting packs to hoard for yourself or split up to give to many friends. Pricing starts at $2.99 for a mini-pouch and goes up from there. A sweet-heart something-for-everyone gift for the holidays.

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Bobby’s adds upscale dining in Lincoln Park

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Bobby, Augie and Tim Arifi, owners of Bobby’s Restaurant Group – following in their father’s restaurateur footsteps – have been successful for 6 years already with North Shore hotspots Bobby’s Deerfield and Cafe Lucci in Glenview. Now they’ve opened a second Bobby’s location in the new ELEVATE residential building at 2518 N. Lincoln Ave. When one of the developers – himself a frequent diner at their Deerfield location – sought an elegant restaurant to fill the structure’s main floor, he called on them to create this upscale eatery and bar and thus add to the sophistication of this trendy area.

The restaurant’s two-story wall of glass looks out onto the popular stretch of Lincoln Avenue between Fullerton and Diversey, known for its abundance of friendly, unassuming bars and eateries. The lighting inside the new Bobby’s restaurant is beautifully subtle and inconspicuous yet perfectly highlights the well-spaced tables, the bright original artwork on the walls (including the custom giant portrait of Bobby’s dad) , and the elegant decor of the bar and the dining area. On the left as you enter is a long inviting stretch of comfortable stools along the bar. One large TV screen behind the bartender’s area is kept quiet enough so that diners are not distracted. For drinkers and diners, Bobby’s bar features 150+ wines by the bottle, 30 wines by the glass and 120+ boutique spirits. They keep their wines in a special refrigerated unit that’s set a little colder than usual for reds, so if you like yours at room temperature, order early, or plan to hold the bowl of your glass in your hand for a bit.

The menu, which honors the original restaurant’s signature dishes while adding some designed specifically to appeal to Lincoln Park tastes, is surprisingly eclectic. We received a small plate of bread to munch on while we waited, along with a nice little crock of garlic-paste/butter combo. Our server Milosh was happy to also provide individually wrapped pats of regular butter on request.

Bobby's duck wing appetizer
Bobby’s duck wing appetizer

Appetizers like Smoked and Roasted Duck Wings – surprisingly large bones tipped with savory duck meat that’s bathed in an excellent spicy Thai sauce – vie for attention with traditional items like Mussels in either white wine or tomato broth – meaty morsels delicious with the intensely flavored wine broth reduction.

Bobby's scallop appetizer
Bobby’s scallop appetizer

Be sure to ask for extra bread to soak that up with. Appetizers include several other seafood items like Salmon Pastrami (served with herbed cream cheese and potato pancakes, NUM!), Shrimp Bobby (washed with egg, cooked with lemon, butter, paprika and grilled vegetables) and Scallops (with cauliflower/potato puree), to name a few. You may want to come back multiple times to try them all.

We were pleased to meet Bobby himself when he came out to welcome us and encourage questions, as he did with each table of guests that arrived. He explained that their relationships with their seafood and other suppliers are paramount and that they always order just enough of the best and freshest. They’d rather run out of something than have it left over, he said, so they plan carefully.

The baby Kale and Quinoa Salad came lightly dressed with an understated lemon emulsion that complimented the mix. The Australian lamb chops, prepared in the Greek manner with lemon, garlic and oregano, were spectacular – meltingly tender and cooked precisely medium rare – succulent and perfect, even for my companion who normally prefers well done. Four slender long-bone chops stood stacked dramatically, bone-ends up, over a small heap of Vesuvio-style garlicky roasted potato wedges that were lip-smacking good, even reheated the next day. The vegetable of the day was a combination of carrots cooked al dente and broccoli florets drenched in garlic buttery goodness that went perfectly with the main course. Specials of the day included roasted branzino and swordfish entrees.

Bobby's tiramisu with a twist
Bobby’s tiramisu with a twist

Desserts were inviting. We sampled the Key Lime Pie – a most satisfying layered delight with a just-tart-enough filling and a topping that tasted like a cross between lightly sweetened, beaten egg whites and whipped cream. Deliciously smooth and creamy. The Tiramisu was quite unusual. The intense crosshatch of chocolate and red berry drizzles on top almost overwhelmed the delicate coffee-infused mascarpone fluffiness underneath, but it certainly gave a unique touch to this popular sweet.

The wine selection was excellent. We tried several reds by the glass – Angels and Cowboys red blend from Sonoma, a Priorat blend from Spain, and a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, all of which were delicious in their own ways ($13 and up). Clearly their wine director has taken great care putting this extensive list together.

The night we dined was only about their third week after opening, so we didn’t expect perfection. Luckily, Milosh was very friendly and when he didn’t have an answer for us, he readily went off to find it elsewhere. After the second time he asked if he could remove our bread plates, we inquired if this was a restaurant policy and he said yes. So don’t hesitate to ask, if you prefer to have your bread plates remain.

Bobby’s at ELEVATE is a relaxed yet elegant place to get some rockin’ good food and wine or drinks. Come in your sparkles and furs or your business casual. We look forward to it becoming another  cornerstone of higher-end dining in Lincoln Park.

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