Category Archives: parties

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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Celebrate the upcoming holidays with kosher rose wines

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Kosher rose wine - so lovely chilled
Kosher rose wine – so lovely chilled

The term “kosher” when applied to wines has, in the past, made most of us think of very sweet, viscous wines such as one made by Manischewitz. But just as the sophistication of wine consumers everywhere is growing by leaps and bounds, so the makers of kosher wines have been finding new ways to create wines that hold their own in more sophisticated company. Case in point, The Royal Wine Corp. has a summer portfolio of quality rosés from around the world that taste delicious – and are also priced reasonably.

Since rosé isn’t meant to hang around for a long time, it’s a good idea to get to your wine store soon and plan to invite friends over to help you enjoy these crisp, all-shades-of-pink rosé wines, each with its own personality. Some god choices for the fall holidays from The Royal Wine Corp. portfolio include:

Shiloh Rosé. Colored bright raspberry red with a nose of apricot, yogurt, ripe strawberries, cherries, and cream. The Israeli wine is medium in body with notes of strawberries, cantaloupe, grapefruit, and peach. Medium in acidity with a long finish, its soft and inviting tannins make it perfect to enjoy with food.

Herzog Lineage. This unique California rosé “has guts,” according to Geller, with medium acidity and a “long and bursting finish” of flavorful, ripe fruit. The medium-bodied wine would be a great com­panion to BBQ, oven-baked salmon in a rich sauce, or simply on its own as an aperitif – with or without some light snacks on the side. “Superb wine, grab it as it will go fast!”

Elvi Vina Encina Rosa. This light- to medium-bodied Spanish rosé is redolent of fresh ripe black cherries, papaya, forest berries, and rose petals. On the palate are enticing notes of cherries, papaya, guava, and peaches, with a lingering finish of dried cranberries. Medium-plus acidity is ever-present but not heavy or ponderous. “An impressive effort, especially considering the price,” Geller says.

Sainte-Béatrice Instant B. Very light on the palate and the nose, this Provincial rosé delivers nice acidity with notes of fresh berries and has a very pleasant light color. Geller notes that this entry-level wine shows Château Roubine’s ability to make quality rosé at every price point.

Château Roubine, Cru Classé (Côtes de Provence, France)
Vibrant and light-bodied with a pleasant soft smell of sweet meadow flowers. Light in tannin, then grows more complex as it opens up. Perfect for quaffing or with food.

Les Lauriers des Barons Edmond & Benja­min de Rothschild, Rosé (Bordeaux, France). Completely dry with fresh acidity. Hints of white flowers and herbaceous aromas. Medium-bodied, notes of sweet lemon. Ideal with light, delicate white fish.

Check out all The Royal Wine Corp. wine collections.

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Now for something completely different – party with #CHEtours

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Chicago downtown from the sky
Chicago downtown from the sky

Always wondered what it would be like to ride in a helicopter. Had the vague idea – probably from watching too many shoot-’em-up big-city crime and spy movies – that it would be a wild ride. Loud. Choppy. Rough. Maybe thrilling – if I wasn’t too scared.

Guess what? When you ride with the right people, the only adjective you need is thrilling. Chicago Helicopter Experience, 2420 S. Halsted, (#CHEtours) is proud and pleased, as one of the only privately owned helicopter heliports in any major US city, to offer anyone the chance to see and feel what it’s like. And I gotta tell ya, it’s a cool way to celebrate just about any occasion, from a romantic night for two, a quick air transfer to or from O’Hare or Midway Airports – you surely know the horror of gridlock on our highways – to a party for a gang of friends or workmates.
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The friendly folks at CHE are passionate about what they do. We felt especially comfortable as we were taken through the strictly enforced safety routines that cover every aspect of each trip – including weighing and assigning seats to every passenger to ensure a perfect balance for a smooth ride. But the #CHEcrew also offers a slew of ways to make your experience fun. You can invite friends and loved ones to enjoy each others’ company in the spacious reception area, complete with coffee and cookies and games – like both a regular-size and a jumbo-size Jenga game, checkers and more. And if you’ve brought a crowd or it’s just plain a busy night – the helicopters hold up to six at a time – everybody has time to interact while awaiting their turn. If you want alcohol, drink it before you come, unless you let #CHEtours organize a catered party that includes it.
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It might actually be loud riding in a helicopter, but with #CHEtours, you won’t notice it. Every rider puts on his/her own pair of Bose headphones that cancel noise and sport voice-activated mics that make it easy to talk to the pilot or fellow passengers. The views from the helicopter are just spectacular. Catching the sun at different angles on the beautiful buildings and landmarks of downtown Chicago and all down the north shore to Wrigley Field (unless there’s a game on) is an unforgettable experience. Imagine looking down the Chicago River in a corridor between Chicago’s gorgeous skyscrapers. We found most everybody was so entranced with the experience that there wasn’t a lot of talking outside the pilot’s FAQs on various high points.
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The company is on the move. CHE’s founder and CEO, Trevor Heffernan, says he founded the company after deciding he was sick of the traffic jams constantly gumming up his trips to visit relatives near Wisconsin. Read more about what he went through to get his CHE business going in this nice article in the Chicago Tribune. They’re offering lots of exciting options for folks who want to go play golf, say, on a course within a 30-minute helicopter trip but don’t want to waste time driving there and back. They’re planning to ferry people, too, to an upcoming Goo Goo Dolls concert and to the city’s hugely popular Lollapalooza event.
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So if you’ve ever dreamed about riding a helicopter – whether to escape the crazy traffic or to get a fabulously unique view of your city – you can do it in Chicago. Prices start around $150 per person for the 15-minute tour to Wrigley and with many optional add-on packages. People, what a great way to give yourself and/or clients or loved ones a truly memorable experience.

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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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Polar-bear-inspired new menu items at LPZoo

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Have you heard about the new lady polar bear Talini at Lincoln Park Zoo? Yes, she has come to us from Detroit as part of the cooperative “preserve the species” mating programs many zoos participate in. Siku is the Zoo’s polaar guy that she’s destined to get to know.

And just for fun, the Park Place Cafe, located inside the zoo grounds in its own building (see it on this zoo map), has created two mouth-watering-sounding recipes to honor the snow theme.

  • Talini Polar Bear Split
    Talini Polar Bear Split

    TALINI Polar Bear Split  – chocolate-dipped and sprinkle-covered frozen banana topped with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, caramel sauce, shredded coconut “snow,” whipped cream and a cherry. $9.95. NUM!

 

  • Siku Meatball Sub
    Siku Meatball Sub

    SIKU’s Meatball Sub – marinara covered meatballs, shredded parmesan, provoline cheese on crusty hoagie roll. $9.95

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Mago Grill & Cantina – delicious discovery in South Loop

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We were invited to visit here recently after we’d heard about Mago Grill & Cantina‘s fun and creative take on combining traditional Hanukkah dishes with a Mexican flair. The location was a surprise – the sophisticated and beautiful shopping complex called The Roosevelt Collection (off E. Roosevelt Rd., next to the Target store and near Clark St. in the South Loop). But the food surprised us even more – so very, very good.

The space at Mago is expansive. Almost a suburban type ambiance – spacious, modern, colorful. But the food is quite a few levels above what you usually find in a typical suburban establishment.  Perfect for savvy sophisticated millennials, yet totally family friendly. The tables are set far enough apart that you have real privacy for your conversations. Ideal for ladies who lunch and want to shop at a few upscale shops afterwards, or for baby boomers looking to enjoy an excellent meal and some good conversation. The space is open and welcoming enough that almost anyone will feel comfortable.

It was fun perusing the menu – both the Hanukkah specials and the regular items. We greatly enjoyed the homemade taco chips with three types of salsa – mild, medium and really hot (made with sesame seeds). Our server Ageo was most helpful explaining the menu and making suggestions. We tried a few things specifically at his recommendations and they were excellent.

For starters we tried, at our server’s recommendation, the empanadas. Excellent choice. A delicious crust with a great deal more character than most we’ve tasted before. The shrimp empanada was especially flavorful – tasted like shrimp of the highest quality roasted to perfection. Crispy turnovers served with frisee, queso cotija and crema Mexicana, in a choice of ground beef picadillo with chimichurri, chicken tinga with roasted tomato salsa, or tequila shrimp with habanero salsa. And you get to choose one each of two choices. Lovely!
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Mago Camarones en Chile
Mago Camarones en Chile

The Camarones en Chile was nicely roasted shrimp in a savory poblano pepper sauce, served with special chunky mashed potatoes and a huge pile of roasted poblano peppers, all bathed in a succulent brown sauce. Delicious.

Another shot of the beef rib with mole - num!
Another shot of the beef rib with mole – num!
 The short rib – a regular menu item – was dressed up for the Jewish holiday. Tender, richly browned and served with a rich, thick, dark mole sauce and a chunk of grated, seasoned plantain that was fried crisp and tasted amazingly good. As a side, the chef prepared potato latkes and added cilantro to honor Hanukkah and give them a Mexican touch. This dish smelled and tasted so good that my granddaughter came home from school and immediately consumed the leftovers.
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Mago coconut flan
Mago coconut flan

The flan of the week was coconut – incredibly thick and not too sweet and loaded with coconut, drizzled generously with rich caramel sauce and topped with a big beautiful pile of whip cream and a strawberry. It was served in a huge dish dusted with powdered sugar. No problem polishing off this gem all by myself.

This was one of our favorite recent restaurant meals  – and so surprising for a weekday lunch. Felt like a 4-star dinner. Mago Grill & Cantina is well worth a trip for its creative approach to blending cuisines and its commendable attention to the details of execution that take dishes several notches above the usual.
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Mago Grill & Cantina is located at 1010 S. Delano Court East. The place is a breeze to get to. CTA buses and trains are a short walk away. And if you drive, no need to fight downtown traffic hassles. Take Lake Shore Drive to Roosevelt or the Dan Ryan and pull right in. The shopping mall has ample underground parking – no need to stress on that score either. Go here. We will be back with friends very soon to try more dishes on the menu.
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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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Carnivale adds raw bar to its exotic food-drink-music mix

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Invited recently to experience Carnivale, we walked into the large venue at 702 W. Fulton St. in Chicago’s trendy and bustling West Loop. Immediately colorful lights inspired our vision and energetic Latin-fusion music warmed up our party parts. We got the definite feeling we were going to have a good time – and the goal of their staff members seems to be just that: do everything they can to make sure a good time is what you have.

What’s a party without music and live entertainment? At Carnivale scantily clad acrobatic artists perform at strategic locations around the dining area, including a long-blonde-haired mermaid waving her tail while suspended in a net above the tables and painted hard-body entertainers executing feats of skill or gyrating to the music.

The food and wine and cocktails are carefully curated. Our knowledgeable server, Jorge, who is also the restaurant’s sommelier, offered expert guidance in choosing dishes from the dinner menu and beverages that perfectly complemented them.

A new addition to Carnivale’s offerings is its extensive raw bar. Jorge recommended the raw-bar-for-two ($50) – a delightful collection of seafood goodies including poached shrimp, crab claw and half-lobster tail – cooked just right and served with several interesting sauce options in addition to fresh lemon. This dish – possibly one of the best values on the menu – was served dramatically in what looked like a professional toolbox that you open from the middle, the long way, to stepped sides. Nestled in the ice on the bottom were three dishes of Carnivale’s delicious and unique ceviches – generous for two to split. Hard to decide which we liked the best: shrimp,  blue crab, or mixto (shrimp, calamari, octopus and a delicious combination of slightly exotic touches like preserved lemon, sweet potato, cilantro and more).

After such a generous starter, it made sense to split Jorge’s next recommendations: the dry-aged prime ribeye ($49) and Hook’s cheddar potato gratin. Meat was nicely grilled and flavorful, though somewhat chewy, with a succulent wine reduction on the side. The potato gratin made a nice pairing. Good thing to split those, because the dessert Jorge suggested was irresistable – the Chocolate Dome ($9), made with white and dark chocolate mousse, strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberries. It was so visually appealing and so incredibly mouth-watering, most of it was gone before the photo got taken.

Since you can’t eat everything on the menu, when you visit Carnivale be sure to look around at other tables. See if you can spot a cotton candy dessert (complete with housemade caramel corn) or even one of their signature cotton candy cocktails. It’s just one more way to liven the party up. And don’t forget their Latin-inspired fusion brunch on weekends. And by the way, they have lots of space for private events – a great place for companies to put on a party or for you to put one on for friends and loved ones.

Whether you’re in the mood to party, or you want to get into the mood, Carnivale clearly stands ready to turn on party mode at all hours every day of the week. Contact them here for reservations or to find out more.

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3 Sicilian wines under $20 for holiday meals

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It’s never too early to start thinking about wines you might like to serve with your holiday meals. The selection is endless, certainly, but recommendations can help you hone down the list of possibles. Based on some recent complimentary review tastings, here are three we can recommend for various occasions, including various upcoming holidays. Two Sicilian whites and one red:
Donnafugata Lighea - unique Zibibbo grape wine
Donnafugata Lighea – unique Zibibbo grape wine

Lighea 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. This is a truly unique taste in white wines. It’s made of Zibibbo grapes (also known as Muscat of Alexandria), and the vines are grown in hollows on low bush vines (notorious for lower yields than traditional). This vintage was grown in a relatively dry season with weather that wasn’t overly hot, so the winemakers were able to focus on the quality of the grapes without worrying about quantity. Lighea has a brilliant straw color with greenish tints, a nose of classic notes of orange blossom, saturn peaches and Mediterranean scrub. The aromas reflect exactly what you’ll taste on the palate along with a fresh mineral vein – and that’s why this unusual combination produces such a unique flavor. Delicious as an aperitif and good with first courses like seafood or a light soup. SRP ~$15-20.

Donnafugata SurSur - light and lovely Grillo white
Donnafugata SurSur – light and lovely Grillo white

SurSur 2016 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Made from the ubiquitous Sicilian grape, Grillo, this white wine has a fresh and fruity character and a bouquet of peaches, elderflowers and rosemary – so there’s a hint of savory that makes it lovely with seafood, vegetables and baked sturdy fish. Open it when you’re ready to serve and pour into medium-size tulip glasses to get the most out of the fruity aromas and the brilliant straw yellow color. Even the label, with its painting of a young girl running through the grass, makes you feel like you’re there with her, “listening to a thousand Sur Sur” (it means crickets). Nice value for an apertif at SRP ~$13.

Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d'Avola and many other grapes
Donnafugata Sedara red with Nero d’Avola and many other grapes

Sedàra 2015 Sicilia DOC Donnafugata. Another of Sicily’s classic grapes, Nero d’Avola, is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other grapes here and crafted into a quality red wine suitable for everyday enjoyment or favorite family occasions. The dark berries and slight spice notes come out in a pleasantly dusky quality that makes this wine good for pairing with rich foods like barbequed meats, pizza, or even seared tuna or roast turkey. A complex, structured red that benefits from letting it breathe a while before you drink. SRP ~$15.

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Thrillist puts on its first annual event in Chicago

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Thrillist is the group from New York that’s spreading its tongue-in-cheek attitude via daily email letters full of articles. They came to Chicago a couple of years ago, and now they’ve decided to start giving parties and inviting local restaurants to participate. They did the first one recent here, and they did a great job. Some of Chicago’s finest restaurants participated (Joe’s Seafood, Chicago Q, Wildfire, etc.).

Tip: Just because there’s a long line doesn’t mean that place has better food. It’s just as likely that the staffers aren’t handling their jobs as efficiently as other stands.

One of the fun things about this event was the central area where people could play games – like giant-size Jango sticks, beanbag toss, etc. Great idea to have something to do besides drink and eat. Makes it feel even more like a party.

And the facility – an old factory in West Loop – was very cool. Besides the dynamite skylight, the bathrooms were the bomb! Go, Thrillist. We look forward to your next event.

Thrillist party bathroom
Thrillist party bathroom
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