Category Archives: Italian food

Victory Tap heats up South Loop food scene

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Dark wood surroundings. Unique architectural touches. Multiple inviting private spaces. They’re all a big part of what goes on at Victory Tap,  1416 S. Michigan Ave., in Chicago’s South Loop., along a booming section of the street where new condos are going up at  rapid clip. The ambiance is comfortable and classy, and the food is the star. Chef Joe Farina brings his years of experience in venerable Chicago Italian kitchens like Rosebud to this new incarnation of Italian-cum-fine dining establishment.

Victory Tap bread plate
Victory Tap bread plate

You start with a plate of mixed bread items, all of which are tempting enough to get you full before the main course arrives – crusty, chewy Italian bread, chunks of pizza and more with a plate of olive oil or fresh, cold butter, as you desire.

Perfezionare polpette - with ricotta side
Perfezionare polpette – with ricotta side

Joe’s Mama’s meatballs are a star item on the menu. Pronounced by my meatball aficionado companion as utterly divine. Big, fluffy spheres studded with bright fresh parsley, these gems come in Chef Joe Farina’s unique marinara sauce and are fit for Italian royalty. We started with an order of these meatballs and loved that they were served with a big scoop of olive-oil-enhanced, whipped ricotta cheese on the side. These tender, juicy meatballs in the succulent marinara sauce make a delicious and satisfying main course, even without a helping of one of Victory Tap’s housemade pastas, of which there are many varieties.

In fact, the meatballs are so good the restaurant has decided to take them on the road so you can buy them even closer to home. Our server Bobby shared his enthusiasm for Victory Tap, Chef Farina and the food and told us he is the one who will be marketing the meatballs to  major retail outlets like Mariano’s and other private and chain establishments. Look for them soon nearby.

Baconfest winner - agnolooti with sage and brown butter
Baconfest winner – agnolooti with sage and brown butter

We also to tried the agnolotti pasta that won the first-ever-given People’s Choice award at the Chicago Bacon Fest 2018. Delicious hand-shaped pasta filled with ricotta and Parmesan and topped with a rich, sage-infused browned butter sauce and sprinkled with thick chunks of cooked bacon. Rich and delicious, even the leftovers reheated in the microwave next day.

Almond-crusted sea bass
Almond-crusted sea bass

The housemade pastas, from linguine and lasagna to shells, ravioli and cavatelli, let you mix with shrimp, sausage, clam sauce, creamy vodka sauce and more. Items on the extensive Italian-inspired menu can be paired with any of the restaurant’s carefully selected wines. Plus diners can choose from plenty of not-just-Italian dishes, including a generous selection of daily specials. On our visit, the almond-crusted sea bass daily special was a winner. Served perfectly broiled atop a bed of lightly steamed fresh spinach, it was bathed in a delicately tangy, citrus-perfumed lemon butter sauce that perfectly tied together the flavors of the fish, the spinach and the warm cherry tomato garnish. Oh, and they sell Armand’s pizza in thin crust and pan versions.

Ricotta cheesecake
Ricotta cheesecake

The desserts we tried were excellent. Ricotta cheesecake was light yet rich, quite different and less fat. Served with whipped cream and a beautifully cut fresh strawberry garnish in a rich graham cracker crust. Tiramisu had a thick layer of  angelically light and creamy mascarpone with a perfect dusting of cocoa, all atop the coffee-enhanced cake.

Handsome private dining/party spaces
Handsome private dining/party spaces

The restaurant is known for its catering and for convenient packages for private dining/parties. Upstair are several beautiful, dark-wood spaces that feel like you could be in someone’s very elegant home. Great food, beautiful surroundings. A winning combination for sure. Restrooms are on the second floor, too, and there is an elevator located conveniently under the staircase, so no issues for partygoers or restaurant patrons who don’t want to deal with stairs.

This is a place where you can feel at home, appreciate the service and enjoy the food over and over. We’ll be back soon.

Look for Joe's Mama's Meatballs in your grocer soon!
Look for Joe’s Mama’s Meatballs in your grocer soon!
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6 unique food, drink and product ideas

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It’s fun to experiment sometimes. Below are 6 unique interesting and unique product suggestions – one made with a hitherto mysterious ingredient from Greece, one a Chicago-based candle company that helps young mothers, a line of products all made with cocoa, a lightly sparkling drink sweetened with agave, an energy snack infused with with tea, and a super-thin cracker from Italy.  Try something new for your New Year adventure!

  1. Mastiha is a resin that drips off the bark of the mastiha tree that grows only in Chios, Greece. The Greeks have been harvesting it for thousands of years – since 600 B.C.E. It’s known to have anti-inflammatory properties and is now considered by many to be a super food – used as an ingredient in cosmetics, gum, oils, food, and liquors. It’s even sold in capsules and in powdered form to treat a vast number of conditions. The ELMA brand chios mastic gum comes either sweetened with sugar or sugar-free and contains natural gum mastic and mastic oils. It’s tasty and is said to freshen the breath. Some of the cosmetics made with mastiha include products from the Lira Mystiq line such as Mystiq Illuminating Cleanser and Mystiq Illuminating Polisher for your skin, each of which contains ingredients that are derived from the original mastiha.
  2. Bright Endeavors, based in Chicago, makes clean-burning soy candles that smell lovely and come with your Chicago city skyline imprinted on the cover. What’s more, all the proceeds go to their non-for-profit organization that provides job training for young mothers so they can support their children and participate fully in their communities. They’ve served more than 500 young women so far and show no signs of stopping. If you’re going to buy a candle for someone, this is a terrific opportunity to make your giving extend beyond just the gift itself. @Bright_Endeavors #Chicagocandle.
  3. THE COCOA EXCHANGE™ POD & BEAN makes cocoa-infused products of many types. Cocoa-infused barbeque sauce might be an acquired taste for some, but it certainly is a bold way to stand out from other options. Stone ground cocoa-infused mustard intrigues. Imagine Cheddar Ale cheese dip sparked with a tablespoon of that. Fascinating, eh? Consider some of the other unique sauces: Blackberry Chipotle, Korean Barbeque, Mexican Simmer, and more. It’s great how they have little graphic icons on each jar suggesting what foods the sauce goes well with. If you love cocoa and chocolate and are willing to open your mind, some of these products could be just what your taste buds have been looking for. Check out this amazing recipe for Bacon Ale Cheese Dip for a crowd. Check their website for more cool recipes.
  4. Sipp is a brand new soft drink created by founder Beth Wilson-Parentice when she got downsized out of corporate America. Sparkling and organic, Sipp comes in several unique and delicious flavors. A fabulous mixer with bubbly or all by itself if you’re skipping alcohol. Their website even offers Sipp-with-food pairing ideas that’ll jump start your imagination. At 88 calories per can (100 per bottle) and sweetened with agave, it’s not a low-calorie or sweetener-free option, but it is completely free of chemicals and artificial sweeteners – more and more a big selling point for health-conscious consumers. Check out the Ginger Blossom flavor – ginger, smooth vanilla and lime. Or the Zesty Orange – zesty blood orange, lime and jalapeno. Or Lemon Flower – zesty lemon, elderflower and a touch of aromatic tarragon. Don’t those sound exciting? Based on our sampling for review, that’s just what they are. Bottles (12 oz) and cans (10.5 oz) available at Target and other retailers as well as on Amazon.
  5. TeaSquares – Tea-infused Energy Snacks. A startup company here in Chicago makes these crispy light snacks that promise to provide low-cal nutrition along with a little shot of caffeine to perk you up and help you focus during the day. They’re made with puffed millet, crunchy almonds and fruits infused with tea. Enjoyably light and easy to carry around (except they could get crushed easily in a big, overfilled tote), they come in several nice fruit-combo flavors and are available online.

    Tuscanini packaging
    Tuscanini packaging
  6. Tuscanini Italian Parchment Crackers. Super thin and crispy, these hand-made crackers make a light, crunchy base for appetizers or cheese, and they go beautifully with soups or salads. They are made in Sardinia, Italy, and imported from there by Kayco. Try one of their tasty flavors: Olive Oil,  Rosemary with Olive Oil, or Oregano with Olive Oil. Lower calorie than bread spread with olive oil, but just as satisfying.
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11 Beautiful Italian wines to warm your holidays

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IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour
IEEM #SimplyItalian Tour

IEEM is an Italian organization that’s helping to improve knowledge and foster greater enjoyment of Italian wines by countries around the world. Their  Simply Italian Great Wines Tour 2017 once again this year brought to Chicago many special wines chosen from a selection of Italy’s multitudinous wine regions. Trade and media attended guided tastings-cum-educational seminars on such wine regions as Moscato d’Asti, Prosecco, Sicily and more, each of which offered glimpses into a broad array of Italy’s offerings. Below are a few of the many lovely ones the #SimplyItalianTour showcased.

 
IEEM Nero d'Avola wines
IEEM Nero d’Avola wines

#SicilianWineArt has become huge business since the country established its Sicilia DOC designation. Two grape varieties – Grillo and Nero d’Avola – are grown exclusively in Sicily and are used to make a wide range of respectively white and red wines. Sicily has 100 days of harvesting every year when you count all the areas where grapes are grown. Colomba Bianca, Sicily’s biggest wine cooperative representing five different wineries, brought to Chicago samples of some of its offerings.

  • Grillo Sicilia DOC Lavi 2016. Hand-harvested 100% Grillo grapes are turned via the Charmat method into a light straw yellow bubbly with intense, complex aromas like white flowers and orange blossoms with a citrus note. On the palate, taste nettle and sage, jasmine and melon. Minerally, crisp and fresh. Delicious with first courses of fish or vegetables and with white meats, tabouleh, mozzarella, anchovies and tomatoes.
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  • Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC Vitese 2016. Hand-picked and put into small crates during late August/early September, the skins for this organically made wine are macerated at low temperatures for two days to extract the sweet tannins an delicate color. Intensely ruby red – beautifully purple-red – it offers fragrant fruity aromas of red berries (cherry, blackberry) that are also minerally (graphite) and spicy. The tannins and acidity are perfectly balanced within a wine of great structure, smoothness and intensity. Serve it as an aperitif or with mature cheeses, cold cuts and meats of all types. We love this wine *****5 stars.
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  • Nero d’Avola Sicilia DOC Kore 2016. One of Colomba Bianca’s classic red wines, this 100% Nero d’Avola wine is ruby red with purple tinges and unmistakable aromas of prune, cherry and light spice. It’s soft and velvety on the palate with a pleasing structure and a distinct fruitiness that’s also elegant and refined. Serve with typical Sicilian dishes like spaghetti alla norma with eggplant and smoked ricotta. Even more complex and rewarding than the Vitese, these are both excellent choices for your best holiday occasions. *****5 stars.
IEEM Prosecco
IEEM Prosecco

Prosecco DOC wineries included Piera Matellozzo 1899, Masottina, Supmanti Valdo, Barollo, Astoria and more. Here are two standouts from among their samples:

  • Barollo Prosecco Millesimato Extra Dry Treviso DOC 2016. Gorgeous (we gave it 5 stars) wine made from 100% Glera grapes. This small-production (25-30,000 bottles) Prosecco is fragrant with notes of candied citron and acacia flowers, yellow apple, peach and crusty bread.  On the palate it’s dry, soft and fresh with a elegant fruity aftertaste. Perfect as an aperitif or with risottos with vegetables and fish dishes. 11% alc. ~$19. *****5 stars.
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  •  La Marca Prosecco Sparkling DOC, imported by Gallo. Made with 100% Glera, this delicately golden straw yellow Prosecco brings fruity notes and a distinctive floral aroma along with a lively and persistent perlage of full-textured bubbles. The palate is fresh and clean with flavors of ripe lemon, green apple and grapefruit with an agreeable minerality. Well balanced with a light, crisp, refreshing finish. Serve chilled with starters and fish dishes. 11% alc. ****4 stars.
 
Chianti Rufina
IEEM Chianti Rufina

Other Italian wine regions came to introduce Chicago to their wines this year. Consorzio Vino Chianti presented guided tastings of wines from the seven subregions of Chianti – Montalbano, Rufina, Montespertoli, Aretini and others, plus Chianti Classico – all located in Tuscany between the great Italian cities of Firenze (Florence) and Siena. They explained how Chianti DOCG is now requiring bottles to be sealed with traceable labels – an important move to protect the integrity of fine wines from this region. The entire Chianti region has a new focus on quality rather than quantity as had been the case for many decades. A few memorable vintages from the tasting, all coming in at around 14% alcohol:

 
  • Chianti Rufina DOCG Riserva 2013. 95% Sangiovese, 5% blend of three grapes indigenous to the region. A beautiful wine grown on rocky soils and made with traditional wine making processes, including fermenting in steel vats and maturing in big oak barrels for two years and in the bottle three months. Fine, delicate aromas due to late-growing Sangiovese. Perfectly balanced. *****5 stars.
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  • Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG Riserva 2013. 90% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. A single-vineyard blend made from grapes grown in mixed soils with riverstones. Grown on old vines with at least 1 meter between the vines. *****5 stars. ~$13.
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  • Chianti Montespertoli DOCG Riserva 2013. 100% Sangiovese. This is a single-vineyard wine that’s light and acidic – the result of planting Sangiovese grapes in a northern exposure. This results in greater structure yet the expression is very well-balanced. 14% alc. ~$25.
 
IEEM Friuli Grave - The Sparkling Life
IEEM Friuli Grave – The Sparkling Life

A third Italian group, Consorzio Vini Friuli Grave, this year brought to Chicago a selection of its DOC sparkling and still wines – “fresh and fun wines,.” Made from grapes grown in Friuli Venezia Giulia, a northeastern area of Italy that’s rich in tradition, colors, aromas and flavors, these wines tend to be lighter, with alcohol content ranging from around 11% to 13%. You’re sure to find something to please anyone within this portfolio. Here are a few they brought here to sample at #TheSparklingLife presentation:

 
  • Spumante Rose Extra Dry “Collevento 921” from Antonutti Vini dal 1921. This delightful sparkling wine belies the old reputation of spumante as overly sweet and syrupy. It’s made with 80% Merlot and 20% Refosco via the Charmat method. The color is bright pink with a bouquet of red berries (raspberry, currant and strawberry) and a light, fine lingering perlage. Its lovely character is due in part to the fact that the Merlot grape never gets overly ripe in the cool weather of this area. Excellent as an aperitif or with appetizers or fish platters (the Italians love their fish!). Priced between $8 and $15 depending on where you get it, it’s perfect for the holidays. 11% alc.
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  • Friuland “Le Bastie” 2011 DOC Friuli Grave by Tenute Tomasella. This small-production (2500 bottles) wine made of 100% Friuli grapes has a creamy texture with great fruit taste. An intense golden-hued straw yellow color, its bouquet is refined yet intense and features a blend of spices and fruit with a hint of vanilla. It’s because they use a process called “friulano” which reduces oxidation in white wines that this wine actually ages well. Priced ~$23, we think it’s worth going into splurge mode. 13% alc.
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  • Sauvignon “Braida Santa Cecilia” 2016 DOC Friuli Grave. Made with 100% Sauvignon A3 clone, this pale yellow white wine takes its name from the Italian meaning “clearing in the forest,” which describes the weather conditions in the northeastern area where they can grow this grape. Unlike the New Zealand Sauvignon blanc – which some Italians describe as smelling like a sweaty sock – the passionfruit, sage and yellow pepper nose of this wine compares more to a Sancerre. This wine is made by Kim Crawford’s husband, who excused himself from making the “Kim Crawford” type of Sauvignon to go renegade and make a new kind of Sauvignon. He calls his highly award-winning winery Pitars so as not to confuse people with the Crawford name. We give his version a solid 5 stars. 12.5% alc.
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Patio pleasures at Trattoria Gianni

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Trattoria Gianni's charming enclosed patio
Trattoria Gianni’s charming enclosed patio
Sitting on a block of Halsted in Lincoln Park that’s also home to high-flying successes like Alinea and Boka can be a challenge for any restaurant. Trattoria Gianni, 1711 N. Halsted, takes it on as a comfortable Italian oasis that has the distinct summer advantage of a large, enclosed, charmingly decorated patio.
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On a recent press visit we sampled some of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Rice balls that were tender inside and deep-fried just enough to give a hint of crunch on the outside. Meatballs made with pork and veal. Pasta veggie primavera. Italian-dressed romaine and tomato salad with Italian bread. Italian food, filling and plentiful.

Prices are reasonable, and this is an ideal place to come before or after the theater – Steppenwolf Theatre is across the street down the block. Be forewarned that the air conditioning works much better in the front section of the restaurant; the hot day we were there it was uncomfortably warm in the back section. But if it’s a nice day, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the patio. This patio is beside the restaurant – not stuck out on the sidewalk as so many are these days – and runs the length of the building, so it’s roomy. A glass door opening to the patio allows servers a clear view of tables and easy access to patrons. Sadly, it was raining the day we visited so we didn’t get to experience it personally, but I can picture us enjoying some wine or a summer cocktail among the flowers and the twinkling lights.

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Maggiano’s does brunch Italian-style

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Maggiano’s, 516 N. Clark St., a long-time favorite in Chicago along with 51 other locations across the nation, is now doing brunch. Their creative series of Benedicts ($14-$15) is available seven days a week until 3pm, and the extended menu with pancakes, frittatas, and more is available Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 3pm.

Why brunch, you ask? Because there’s no longer any doubt that brunch in America has become a special occasion in its own right, and Maggiano’s is all about helping you make your occasions special. They now open at 11 on weekends to satisfy your brunch cravings with their own unique take on traditional brunch features and a few surprises of their own. Naturally, because libations are a critical component of the good brunch, order your favorite Bloody Mary – Italian-style with a distinctive Maggiano’s flavor –  mimosa or peach Bellini. The full bar selection – from champagne to whiskey – is available if you prefer your drinks unmixed.

Maggiano’s was recently voted top allergy-friendly chain by Allergy Eats, and in a massive consumer survey by Restaurant Business, was voted the nation’s #1 favorite special event venue and one of the top 5 favorite chain venues in the country. So it’s a good bet there is something for every one.
When you order brunch at Maggiano’s, the first thing that appears in front of you is a light-crumbed orange streusel cake coated in an orange-flavored sugar glaze to amuse your bouche while you look over the menu. One of the star items on the extended brunch menu is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($14.95). When Executive Chef Josh Rodriguez demoed this, we watched him fold whipped egg whites in to lighten the batter that also includes freshly grated lemon zest, egg yolks and vanilla bean paste. Chef uses an ice cream scoop to portion the batter and smush each cake down. Cooked 4 minutes on each side, they come out super-light and ready for you to go crazy with the whipped cream, blueberries, and syrup.

Another these-carbs-are-so-worth-it! dish is the Crème brûlée French toast. Made with cranberry-raisin bread, it’s got the creamy, rich flavor of the restaurant’s house-made Crème brûlée mix and is another great way to enjoy helpings of strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and syrup.

Maggiano's fresh veggie frittata
Maggiano’s fresh veggie frittata

Veggie frittata features smoked Gouda, spinach, mushrooms – fresh flavors, softly finished eggs – served with crisp Vesuvio potatoes. You can also choose from the can’t-eat-anymore Italian breakfast of three eggs with ham, bacon and Italian sausage plus potatoes.

How about the Maggiano’s special Chicken & Waffles where the fried chicken is breaded in the same batter as the waffles are made from? Didn’t get to try that one, but it’s on my brunch bucket list.
Alright. The king of all brunch dishes is the Benedict, right? How do you make a bad one of these gloriously rich creations? If you’ve got your Hollandaise under control, your muffins are nicely toasted, and your ingredients are fresh, it’s hard to fail. But it takes some work to get original with it. Maggiano’s has managed it by putting together a few unique combinations.
  • Meatball Benedict – surprising combination. Nice tomato chunk balances richness of egg yolk and Hollandaise with the flavor of the sturdy beefy meatball. The Italian woman at our table – who, of course, makes her own meatballs – couldn’t stop talking about how much she appreciated how these meatballs worked with the Benedict formula. Hey, if an Italian approves…
  • The Chicken Francese Benedict takes a popular item from the regular Maggiano’s dinner menu – lightly breaded chicken that’s fried and served with arugula – and turns it into a house-made Benedict special.
  • The regular Eggs Benedict is served with a uniquely flavored ham made locally and shipped in from Wisconsin – Nueske’s, which also makes the thick, juicy bacon served at brunch.
  • Crab cake Benedict – nice combo. A pleasantly standard crab cake mixture blends well with the Hollandaise and egg yolk.

All Benedicts are served with house-made crispy Vesuvio potatoes – a deliciously salty preparation that was slightly undercooked on this occasion. If you’re a stickler for thoroughly cooked-through potatoes, make sure to ask your server to tell the chef to make them extra crispy.

Everything on all of Maggiano’s menus is made from scratch to order. If you’ve got any food issues, the chef will always come to your table to determine what they are: allergies, celiac, etc., with a view to designing and custom making your food for you. They make sure you’re safe by using completely separate equipment to cook your meal.
The Maggiano’s Clark St. location has been there for 25 years. It’s a dark-wood-paneled cozy spot perfect for dates, family dinners and special occasions. Patrons can reserve private dining space in the Wine Cellar below the main restaurant or around the corner in the beautiful separate building that sports graciously carpeted wide stairways and wood paneling and the warm welcoming service you can always expect at Maggiano’s. Call for reservations and go enjoy brunch at an Italian Chicago institution.
And don’t forget the Make-a-Wish special dessert and the Chef’s guilt-free pasta dishes (less than 600 calories each). And P.S. – their lasagna is DELICIOUS. They often give you an extra portion to take home when you order their pasta. Chances are really good that you will leave full and happy.
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Book reviews: 3 health-smart and delicious cookbooks

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I love to cook. I love to eat good food. As age has begun creeping up, my granddaughter’s growing older, and I keep learning more, I find myself thinking more and more about the nutrition in the things we eat. I happen to be lucky enough to love vegetables, which many people don’t – including most kids – so it’s not hard for me to get my big doses of vitamins with pure vegetables like tomatoes (according to my Fitbit food tracker, they are the #1 food I consume across all meals every day of the week), orange squashes, romaine, kale and spinach, to name a few. But that just doesn’t work for a lot of folks – some of whom may also have physical conditions that require special consideration in their meal planning.
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Below are three books I’ve recently been asked to review, and I gotta tell you, these are all three excellent books for eating delicious and nutritious foods every day of your life – one addresses stomach issues, another diabetes, and the third is about just plain wonderful recipes that also give you tons of extra nutrients. Five stars for all three.
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    1. pH Balance for GI difficulties
      pH Balance for GI difficulties

      The pH Balance Health & Diet Guide for GERD, IBS & IBD: Practical Solutions, Diet Management and 175 Recipes, by Dr. Fraser Smith BA, ND, Susan Hannah BA, BScH, and Dr. Daniel Richardson BS, MSc, PhD, DAANC, CNC. This is a carefully researched guide to helping people with certain disruptive gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. It gives the science behind the digestive system and detailed explanations about how highly processed foods acidify your system, as does a diet high in meat, dairy and sugar. Here are a few of the questions the book answers: Why acidity can contribute to illness in most body systems; why the Western diet is so poorly balanced for pH; and what you can do about it.

      For some people, the initial explanatory section and the many boxes giving more science may be too much information. But if you are suffering from a GI disorder, you want relief. And the suggestions for balancing your system make sense; the recipes are clear and uncomplicated. Plus, we think you’re going to just plain like the food. Check out the recipe for Crispy Coated Veggie Snacks (p. 195) that has you dip zucchini, sweet potatoes, etc. in yogurt, then breadcrumbs and bake. You can make your own Multi-Seed Energy Bars (p 194) with quinoa, sunflower and sesame seeds and puffed rice or millet with sweeteners like natural cane sugar or brown sugar and pure maple syrup or brown rice syrup. Orange French Toast (p. 179) uses orange juice and optional orange liqueur in the soak mix plus an Orange Marmalade Sauce with honey and orange liqueur (or not). Mmm. Don’t you want a piece right now?  Paperback on Amazon ~$21.
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    2. Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers
      Whole Cooking for diabetics and other food lovers

      Whole Cooking and Nutrition: An Everyday Superfoods Approach to Planning, Cooking and Eating with Diabetes by Katie Cavuto. Thorough, user-friendly science and recipes for diabetics and anybody else who appreciates delicious foods that happen to be healthy, too. The author’s Italian, so there are some wonderful recipes that feature those full-flavor ethnic secrets. She offers a whole section on how to make your own way-healthier versions of pantry staples like tomato sauces, applesauce, nut milks, spice blends and other special dressings and spice-up-your-dishes condiments. Think: Everyday Roasted Garlic (p. 64) which she says you can spread on crackers, whisk into dressings, sauces and dips and swap out for fresh garlic in soups and baked dishes. You simply bake it with olive oil, squeeze out the cooked cloves, cover with a bit of oil and keep in the fridge for two weeks. You’ll feel virtuous for the nutrition and happy with the taste. Plus she gives a great recipe for using it: Garlicky Grilled Pork Chops with Navy Beans (p. 214) that also includes fresh lemon juice, lemon and orange zest, her Herb Oil (p. 60), parsley, canned navy beans and her Olive Tapenade (p. 113).

      The Sweet Potato Oats (p. 96) breakfast dish amps up the nutrition of a bowl of oatmeal with the addition of almond milk and sweet potato puree (you can use canned) and is seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon and maple syrup. The Chicken Sausage and Lentil Soup (p. 184) with Swiss chard, seasoned with thyme and fennel seeds, is her Italian family’s lower-fat version of a classic.

      Cavuto’s vegetable sides and mains offer some unique ways to put life into potatoes, red pappers, spaghetti squash (with walnut arugula pesto!) and more. Think about Roasted Cabbage “Steaks” with Vinaigrette (p. 150) – thick center cuts basted with vinaigrette and baked. The recipe for Roasted Green Beans with Smoked Paprika (p. 137) introduces a brilliantly easy way of seasoning and then cooking them in a very hot oven and dressing with a bit of fresh orange juice. All simple and delicious. Each recipe also gives full nutrition info plus the diabetic exchanges. Kindle $8, paperback $13 on Amazon.

    3. Get more nutrition and flavor in your food
      Get more nutrition and flavor in your food

      Sneaky Blends: Supercharge Your Health with more than 100 Recipes Using the Power of Purees, by Missy Chase Lapine, The New York Times Bestselling Author of The Sneaky Chef: Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids’ Favorite Meals. This and her other books are based on a brilliant idea: that you can add bales of nutrition – and serious extra flavor – to almost any recipe by using a super-nutritious puree of vegetables and/or fruits as one of the ingredients in a recipe. And she proves it with recipes for everything from appetizers, dips, salads and soups to entrees and desserts.

      I gave up eating pancakes a couple of decades ago when I discovered they left me starving an hour after I’d eat them. But my 9-year-old granddaughter loves pancakes – and generally eats the usual ones that are nothing but a load of empty calories and carbs. Lapine puts her Cinnamon Oat Protein Pancakes recipe (p. 123) on nutritional steroids by including 1/4 cup of Carrot-Sweet Potato “Base Blend,” (p. 86) some oatmeal and a couple of scoops of vanilla protein powder into the batter that’s also made with ricotta cheese, cinnamon, vanilla, and a tablespoon of maple syrup (yes, in the batter). I’m telling you, I can’t wait to make these even for myself.

      Lest you freak out about the whole “base blend” concept – which seems to imply a bunch of extra work – Lapine gives ideas to substitute in a pinch (for example, baby food), though she points out that the original purees (most of which sound fairly simple to make like spinach-blueberry) are superior in nutrition and flavor. The idea is to combine a vegetable and fruit (2 veggies in the case of sweet-potato/carrot) and puree them together. She recommends using time-saving frozen versions of many veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash (for this last, she also gives a smart and easy new way to prepare). Adding purees to original salad dressing recipes, she says, ups the nutrition sufficiently that you “don’t have to eat your weight in greens to get your daily allowance.” {smile!} Check out her All Hail Eggless Caesar Dressing (p. 182, uses her Cauliflower Base Blend) on raw kale with grated hard-boiled eggs. Or her Raspberry-Beet Vinaigrette (p. 187) on arugula with goat cheese. Kindle $15, paperback $13 on Amazon.

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Examiner.com shuts down after 8 years – but never fear

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After eight years, Examiner.com, one of the biggest online citizen journalist websites with 47 million unique visitors each month, has shut down operations.

Whatever else happens, links from hundreds of thousands of articles and photographs will be broken. Thousands of Twitter feeds will suddenly look like bomb-ravaged fields – littered with empty craters (photos) and dead bodies (links). [Update: 7/26/16 Instead of leaving thousands of dead links in all social media platforms, Examiner.com has chosen instead to insert links to its own new entertainment portal. It’s probably legal, but it’s a shabby thing to embarrass your long-term, loyal contributors by making their links no longer go where they were meant to.]

So if you were a subscriber to our blog columns on Examiner.com, fear not. Now you can re-subscribe to that content at ChicagoRestaurantExaminer.com or ChicagoLadyBoomerExaminer.com.

In case you’d like to re-link to one or more of the pieces of content you found there, we’re working diligently to get all the articles from those two columns re-published on the new sites.

Contact us via the form below if you have questions or would like to be notified when a specific post is uploaded to the new sites. Thanks for reading!

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Sapori Trattoria – a Lincoln Park/Lakeview gem

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It’s a pleasure to dine at a restaurant where the food, the service and the ambiance come together seamlessly to make a memorable evening. And that’s just what happened recently at Sapori Trattoria, 2701 N. Halsted, close to the border of Lincoln Park and Lakeview. Our party of four arrived at 5 pm for an early dinner and were delighted to feel immediately warm and welcome on a cold Saturday night.

Needing time to study the many Italian-named dishes on the menu, a couple of us found the house Cabernet Sauvignon (Fox Brook 2005) was quite good and made a nice pre-dinner cocktail at a very reasonable $6.50 a glass.

Besides the regular menu items you can find online, the evening’s menu carried an entire column full of “Featured Items” from starters to multiple pasta entrees (including the pumpkin ravioli one of us ultimately ordered), and a number of meat dishes (including Vitello Osso Bucco and the Duck Leg Confit).

Shortly after we sat down, a tray of bread arrived – excellent flavor, with moist crumb and crispy crust. I’d noticed a small bottle of olive oil and a dish of grated fresh Parmesan cheese, but when I (a die-hard butter fan) asked for some, a dish promptly arrived with two large, cold, unsalted slabs thereof. A heaven-sent version of my go-to restaurant indulgence!

We shared one order of bruschetta ($6.95) around the table. A generous portion of homemade mozzarella cheese – freshly made, light and tender – was surrounded by shavings of prosciutto and chunks of marinated tomato on toasted slices of that lusty, crusty Italian bread. Another person ordered the Caesar salad – a plateful of crisp, crunchy romaine and some very good homemade croutons, all lightly coated with owner/Executive Chef Antonio Barbanente’s own delicately seasoned dressing – delicious but perhaps slightly overpriced for the quantity at $7.95.

It was rough going choosing our main courses; almost everything on the menu had its appeal. Ted, our server, answered our many questions – including whether the pasta is house-made (it is, except penne). He patiently explained the differences in various dishes and told us which were the most popular.

We finally settled on our selections. The Maple Leaf Farms Duck Leg ($25.95) was a classic duck confit preparation – salt-cured for two days and slow-roasted in its own fat, served with sweet potato strings and 48-hour duck gravy. The Cappellacci di Zucca ($21.99), pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in a burnt butter sauce with butternut squash, sage and pine nuts, was declared a winner. Vitello Paesana ($26.99), tender veal scallopini sauteed with artichokes and cherry tomatoes in a savory delicate wine sauce, was a hit, too. We all approved our samples from a side of homemade pasta – oil and garlic caressing every noodle in a nest of rich-tasting, homemade egg-dough linguine.

My entree was a huge chunk of perfectly pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($28.99) served in an aromatic sauce with lightly steamed fresh spinach, finished with roasted tomatoes, oyster mushrooms, and beautifully tender-inside, lightly crispy-on-the-edges chunks of roasted potato. Potatoes are another of the items by which I judge a restaurant – for example, undercooked is a disaster – and these more than passed muster. The only off note was finding a couple of gristly pieces underneath the fish. Homemade pasta with seafood? I simply had to try some. Ted graciously accommodated my request for half an order of Spaghetti alla Scoglio ($23.99). This lovely dish consisted of a generous helping of seasoned seafood (clam, mussel, shrimp and scallop), cooked juste á point and served on a bed of homemade egg spaghetti. The spaghetti was delicious on its own, but it was also enveloped in a mellow and flavorful sauce – the menu says the pasta is “sautéed in marinara.” Okay. The best marinara I remember tasting in a long time. And since I feel the same way after having eaten the leftovers for breakfast, I know it wasn’t just the wine and the company that made it taste so good!

Ambiance is wonderful at Sapori. I’m a sucker for tiny white lights, and here, just the right number of these Italian standbys pinpoint the overall subtle lighting (notice how dark all the pics are!). The place is built into what must have originally been someone’s home – certainly not a restaurant. Outside the small main dining area – which has two levels, thus adding to the sense of coziness and privacy – you’ll encounter a charming rabbit warren of hallways and small rooms tucked away in cozy corners, with extra doors in surprising places. A tiny bar graces the main dining area off the street entrance, and dinner is also served in what is probably another honeycomb of rooms we didn’t go up to see on the second floor. Ted said total capacity is about 250 – a surprise, given the intimate feel of the place, although a regular diner there tells me the noise level gets uncomfortably high at prime times.

Service was friendly, warm and professional. When one of our party complained to Ted after a first taste that the salt-cured duck was too salty, he apologized for not having explained the best process for consuming this dish – interspersing bites with the sweet potato accompaniment. He acknowledged he should have given this advice upon delivering the plate. Then, a minute after Ted left, the maitre d’ arrived to also apologize and offer to replace the dish with something else. Hard to ask for more than that. Later in the evening Chef Antonio came to our table and smiled as we expressed our enthusiasm.

The tiramisu dessert ($6.99) had a decidedly light touch. Crowned with a foam of whipped cream, the ladyfinger layers were lusciously fluffy. Delicious indeed, though I usually like mine a bit heavier – more custard and a tad more rum-coffee flavoring. Panna cotta ($6.99) was super-rich with cream and chocolate-hazelnut flavor. Though I didn’t love the slightly gelatin-y mouth feel of the dish, the drizzle of thin, dark chocolatey sauce on top was a definite enhancement.

Open every day at 4:30, Sapori Trattoria has been here since 2001. Where the heck have I been?

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Antinori embraces Cabernet Sauvignon for Italian wines

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The Antinori family believes in tradition – and innovation, too. They introduced the Cabernet grape to Italy, in a spot where many other grape varieties can’t grow, and began experimenting with blending Cabernet with Italian grapes. The resulting wines have been exceptional, and now they are spreading the word.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia and Niccolo share their passion for Antinori wines

She’s tall and slender, full of energy, and passionate about her mission. She is Alessia, the youngest daughter in the Antinori vintner family – the winemaker who travels the world alone and with her father, Marchesi. The family is the 26th generation to grow wines in Italy and now in Napa Valley. Together they imbibe lessons from cultures on several continents, the better to enrich their own winemaking wisdom. Alessia and her two sisters work closely with their father to manage the three Antinori wine estates in Italy and in America.

Alessia’s shoulder length, softly wavy brown hair moves in time to her graceful arm movements as she nods to emphasize her words. She is introducing five of the Antinori wines to a group of 60 people in Chicago. The Antinori wines being introduced are all made with some percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, for that is the theme of the evening: The Antinori Family’s Fascination with Cabernet around the World. Each wine has a subtle complexity along with delicacy and elegance in its blending. Several of them (see list below) are extraordinarily subtle and refined on the palate, especially the only-made-in-exceptional-years 2011 Solaia Toscana, made from grapes grown in a small southwest-facing vineyard next to their Tignanello vineyard in the Chianti Classico area of Italy.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Only in exceptional years – Solaia Toscana

As Niccolo Maltinti, U.S. Commercial Director and Brand Ambassador, said about this Solaia, “This is not a Sophia-Loren-type wine. It’s one of the most elegant wines, but with a backbone. You want to spend time with it and discover it slowly.” He said the poor, rocky soil here, “makes Cabernet Sauvignon grapes speak with an Italian accent.”

Alessia speaks warmly about the commitment to quality and the passion with which her family has been making wines for 600 years. She says these family values are transmitted seamlessly from generation to generation. Since her great-grandmother was American, her family has always felt a pull towards the United States – so it only made sense when her father visited Napa Valley that he would fall in love. He promptly bought 500 acres, built himself a home (an American style home built by an Italian architect) and went to work creating their estate vineyards.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Coco Pazzo’s fabulous venison ravioli with black truffle and wine reduction

The Cabernet event, held in the Florentine Room of the J.W. Marriott Chicago, paired a number of Antinori wines with fabulous Italian food creations, among them osso bucco with saffron risotto, braised lamb lasagna, and from Coco Pazzo, handmade venison ravioli with black truffle and wine reduction.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia’s – and my! – favorite il Bruciato

Alessia gives away her secret – the wine she drinks every day at home is their il Bruciato, a full-bodied red made of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 15% Syrah. It’s wonderfully red and deep and pairs perfectly with many types of foods. And I was pleased to learn that the wine I liked so much that evening – and had to go back for more of – turned out to be her favorite, il Bruciato.

Barry Devine, the wine manager at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Lincolnshire, said he already carries several Antinori estate wines. He considers “Guado al Tasso Il Bruciato, the second label of the winery, and the Tormaresca Neprica (a blend of Negroamaro, Primativo, and Cabernet Sauvignon) fine examples of elegant wines at great value.” He said another great wine and great value is their Villa Antinori Toscana (Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah blend). In addition to being “great values, these wines are good representatives of their respective areas,” Barry said, and generally score in the 90 point range in respected wine publications.

I asked Alessia a little about herself. She said realized when she was a teenager that she had a choice of where to go in life. Her father never forced her to go into the business, she said. But when she asked her father if she should go for art history or go to Milan to learn winemaking, he unhesitatingly said, “Go to Milan!” Though she knows she could have done something else, she loves the profession she has committed her life to.

Copyright Jeff Schear 2014 All Right Reserved
Alessia, sharing her enthusiasm

When asked if it was unusual today for women to be winemakers, she said, “No, not today. But 20 years ago when I started, I was one of only two women in a class with 30 guys.“

She spoke of how being a family-owned winery makes a difference. I asked her to elaborate. “How our family succeeded – it takes humility, open-mindedness, culture, passion, and curiosity. With the family transmitting the culture and commitment from generation to generation, it assures a continuing sense of responsibility. Otherwise people change, and they don’t have the same commitment.” She spoke of how pleasant it is to be involved with nature. “It took 26 generations to build this company,” she said. “It can take only one moment to destroy it. Everything depends on how you behave, how you transmit the values and ideals to the future generations.“ These values are natural in a family-owned wine business, said Alessia, but they must be tended constantly. “When I speak at events like this, that’s how I show my passion.”

On promoting their wines: “My father was a pioneer in the 1970s in discovering new areas, and in Italy we went to other cities to bring our wines and to promote wine drinking in general.” About traveling alone to India and Asia she said, “It was very challenging. I learned about their traditions, culture – very similar to ours – their religious commitments, history, and ancient culture. Also, no one knew me; I could be myself as a person.”

What about here in the US? “I learned about the huge market potential of the U.S., and that everyone focuses on the main cities. In the 50s and 60s it was more about whiskey and beer in the US. There is a huge revolution here, enormous. In Napa Valley we learned a great deal about using Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.”

Alessia’s favorite everyday Antinori wine, il Bruciato, is available at Binny’s and sold in Eataly by the glass.

Antinori Cabernet wines:

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Creative cuisine at Ceres Table

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Update: Ceres Table is now located at 3124 N. Broadway Street.

Ceres TableCeres Table, 4882 North Clark Street, is located in a modern new building that sits across the street from some very quiet neighbors—a cemetery. It was raining the night we went so we couldn’t take advantage of their charming outdoor sidewalk space lit with tiny white lights on the tree growing through the sidewalk.

It’s off the beaten path for sure. Who knew that a truly gourmet Italian restaurant could be found in a far north corridor of Chicago? But since I’d already been impressed with the creative specials at Ceres Table, when a colleague reported having had an exceptional dining experience I was very pleased to get there for dinner one evening.

The décor is austere. Nice materials in clean lines, with no tablecloths or curtains—perhaps designed to help diners focus on the food. As the menu tells us, Ceres, the Roman goddess of the harvest (and also of mother love), was reputedly born in Sicily, like Giuseppe Scurato, the owner and chef at Ceres Table. We were happy to meet the chef very briefly after our hostess/server had seated us.

The menu here is clearly a reflection of its chef’s inspirations. Just a single example of an appetizer—squash blossoms, battered and fried and stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies—lets you know you’re not dealing with a typical red-sauce Italian restaurant. How about saffron rice balls stuffed with braised goat, peas and taleggio cheese? A strictly Italian cheese made using a technique called smear ripening—a unique method also used with a French favorite of mine, port du salut—I find just reading about taleggio cheese makes me want to go back and try that appetizer. And that’s true of any number of other unique dishes we didn’t have a chance to try that night.

We are assuredly not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.

Our server explained the menu—appetizers on the left, main courses on the right. Partway down the left side I found my appetizer of choice: shrimp crudo, made with laughing bird shrimp (environmentally friendly crustaceans recommended in a NY Times article) marinated—rather like a ceviche—in a citrus vinaigrette with clementines, hot peppers, celery leaves and fennel. The dish was served down the center of a beautiful rectangular plate and was deliciously refreshing.

My companion started with the seafood salad, a mixture of unique fruits of the sea that were cooked just until firm, not toughened, and included shrimp, mussels, claims, seppia (cuttlefish—a favorite in Italy), and baby octopus, all seasoned with parsley pesto and lemon. This dish is all about the seafood, so the seasoning definitely takes a subordinate place. We ordered a Malbec from Argentina that was decently priced and very good, though perhaps a little heavy for the dishes we chose.

Our main courses arrived in good time. But we were surprised, while waiting, to hear our server describing to the table next to us some specials of the evening that we hadn’t heard about, including fresh green beans which I’d have loved to try had I known. As we hadn’t felt particularly welcomed when we first arrived, this extra omission made us feel a little left out. Yet my companion, who’d eaten here a few weeks previously, reported having had excellent and attentive service, so your experience may depend on the night you go.

My friend ordered the grilled quail which came marinated and grilled. The quail—with those little tiny bones!—was tasty but a touch overdone. She really enjoyed the small serving of panzanella salad—a salad made out of bread!—that came with it.

My main course, the seafood mixed grill, was a standout. A generous slab of meaty swordfish had an ever-so-slightly rubbery texture but great taste. The accompanying seppia and gulf prawns were delightfully seasoned, had a bit of spice, and were perfectly cooked. The sambuca roasted potato slices were positively mouth-watering. The frisee (chicory) leaves on top made a just-right, crunchy-bitter complement to the succulent seafood and potatoes. The chef came out to check on us during our main courses—I only hope someday he’ll share how he prepares this dish!

We were excited about the dessert menu and had a hard time choosing. My friend, a die-hard devotee of raspberries and chocolate, chose the ice cream sandwich. Described as chocolate cookies and raspberry ice cream with hot fudge and chocolate chips, the two dainty sandwiches were filled with vanilla ice cream with real raspberries. Everything tasted good, but the chocolate cookies were frozen almost too hard to cut through. The suggested pairing of Prosecco di Valdobbiadene was a perfect complement.

When I saw “corn cake” on the menu my curiosity got the better of me. I’ve always loved good corn bread that was a little sweet, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong with this. The corn cake was, indeed, sweet but also meltingly tender, rich and fine-crumbed. It was served with dribbles of cilantro oil—a taste I thought might be overwhelming but was instead very subtle—and with several puffs of caramel popcorn tossed on the plate. Very original. I enjoyed every bite and scraped the plate to get the last taste. The suggested pairing of Niepoort 20-year-old port put the whole experience over the top.

  1. Examiner.com, Barbara Payne, http://www.examiner.com/lady-boomer-in-chicago/indulge-yourself-at-ceres-table-restaurant
  2. Wikipedia, Taleggio cheese, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taleggio_cheese
  3. New York Times, Florence Fabricant, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/dining/11shrimp.html
  4. Wikipedia, Cuttlefish, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuttlefish
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