Category Archives: Italian food

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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Giordano’s on Rush – real-deal Italian fare

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giordano_pastaGiordano’s downtown, 730 N. Rush, sits on a swanky corner with neighbors, the Peninsula Hotel and RoseBud on Rush. Giordano’s acquits itself proudly in the American tradition of reliably better-than-good, red-sauce Italian fare served in comfortable surroundings.

High ceilings and warm dark-wood paneling feel spacious yet welcoming. A cozy bar sits off to one side in front. Large windows let in plenty of light, even on a gray day like ours started out. Red-checked vinyl tablecloths and generously sized padded booths reinforce the comfy, casual feel. We were there on a weekday at high noon, yet we never felt crowded or rushed.

I was eager to try the calamari appetizer–always a good test of a kitchen. Served in a portion big enough for lunch all by itself, it was battered—like a slightly heavier tempura-type coating—rather than breaded. We got a big pile of the circle pieces topped by a small pile of crispy tentacles, all deep-fried to just a hint of chewiness. I loved the cocktail sauce and lemon, and my companion’s request for marinara brought a whole bowl of steaming sauce. Between us we made short work of the plate.

Service was friendly and competent without being too much. I especially appreciated the server’s careful explanation of how much time each dish would take to bring to the table. In fact, we even changed our individual stuffed pizza order – removed the spinach from it – because she said the dish could take quite a bit longer with any additional filling. Not sure how long lightning-fast-cooking fresh spinach would actually have taken, but happily, the amended order arrived safely within the promised time.

In the matter of timing, Giordano’s takes a page out of the airlines book on setting customer expectations. Being in this prime section of downtown, they undoubtedly get a boatload of people on the clock for lunch and tourists eager to get back to shopping, and some of their prepared-to-order dishes take longer than most people would expect.

For those of you too young to remember, a few decades ago the airlines were constantly being criticized for late arrivals. One day they all got together and said, hey, why don’t we just say we’re going to arrive later? It worked like a charm. People began setting their schedules based on the new, later, stated arrival time, and complaints practically disappeared. These days customers get the occasional thrill of saying, “My plane is getting in early.” Smart thinking, Giordano’s.

My friend ordered his dish of Fettuccini Torino (named after the brother founders’ mother’s birthplace in Italy) with shrimp, and it came with choice of soup or salad, and butter with a loaf of crispy Italian bread. He opted for the green, and the server brought out a generous plateful of just-picked-looking salad at the same time we got our order of individual stuffed pizza. Mmmm. Our order featured a layer of fresh-tasting (as opposed to long-simmered), light, flavorful tomato sauce with just enough garlic atop a generous blob of sweet melty cheese—the website says the cheese includes ricotta, according to the 200-year-old double-crust pizza recipe from a long line of great-grandmoms. Our order was laced with mild Italian sausage and cradled in a not-too-thick, not-too-thin crusty dough bowl. I’ve been a fan of stuffed pizza from The Art of Pizza for the past couple of years, but Giordano’s gives this Chicago standby a different and delightful treatment. I’ll definitely try this for delivery at home next time.

By now the sun had come out and brightened the place without ruining the cozy feeling—an accomplishment in the game of ambiance. And by then my friend was ready to let me taste his fettuccini—tender, nicely cooked shrimp and noodles bathed in a creamy, just-peppery-enough Alfredo sauce. It tasted like they may have used a little non-traditional starch to thicken the sauce, but it was tasty anyway. With the plethora of flavors I was trying, I didn’t think to try the shaker jar of grated cheese sitting in the little “condiment house” on the table to see if it would give the sauce an extra nuance of flavor.

Several pasta dishes on the menu are available in lighter portion sizes. A good thing, too. Because everything here seems to be very generously sized, including the serving of French fries I got with my Hot Chicken Ranch sandwich. I consider French fries another test-though simpler of course—of a kitchen’s prowess. Giordano’s does a nice job—crisp, slightly brown edges, tender inside, not greasy but with just enough salt and crunch to satisfy that I-need-fried-potatoes urge. The sandwich came on the same crispy bread their Italian beef comes on—extra thin crust, light puffy dough inside. It enfolded tender chunks of chicken breast layered with lettuce, red onion and melted provolone. Very tasty even without the ranch dressing I asked for on the side. I saved a big piece of that sandwich and loved it again, straight out of the take-home box, for dinner.

You’ll find a lot of Italian and American standards among the appetizers, salads, pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches on Giordano’s menu. The desserts alone seem worth another trip sometime—tiramisu, cheese cake, and cannoli in addition to ice cream and chocolate cake. Pizzas come stuffed or thin crust in several sizes with lots of topping choices. The pasta choices make you feel you’ve got serious dining options–Chicken Oreganato, baked mostaccioli, eggplant parmesan and that Fettuccini Torino–as well as time-honored spaghetti with marinara or meat sauce.

If you’re like me, you cannot imagine eating pasta or pizza without wine. They don’t mention it on the menu, but fear not–you can enjoy adult beverages with your hearty meal.

Giordano’s has locations all over the Chicago area. A lot of them deliver, too, in their local areas. If you haven’t already, give your local G’s a chance to entertain your tastebuds. For more information and all the locations, visit their website, http://www.giordanos.com/.

1. The Peninsula Hotel, home page

2. RoseBud on Rush, home page

3. Giordano’s, About Us

4. Various reviewers, Yelp, The Art of Pizza reviews

5. Giordano’s, Menu

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