Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chicago Chow-Down

 Chicago deep-dish pizza - if ever a city was linked to a dish, it's this one. I would have been remiss in not ordering it on a trip to the windy city a couple of weeks ago. Wonderful, yes, and every bit as filling as I remembered it too. Sorry Chicago, I like your pizza, but Neapolitan style-pizza is still my favorite. The Chicago culinary experience is about so much more than pizza though. From the casual pizza joint Pizano's (where the above pizza was sampled) to the ultra-elegant restaurant Spiaggia, and Greek and Mexican cuisine in between, I sampled lots of good food with my good friend Lilli during our three-day visit.

Dinner at Spiaggia was high on my list, ever since touring Acetaia San Giacomo (I wrote about the place  here), where Andrea Bezzecchi makes his divinely delicious aged balsamic vinegar in Italy's Emilia Romagna region. Andrea sells the precious liquid to Spiaggia, in addition to New York's Le Bernardin and other high end restaurants as well. The elegant Italian restaurant was also one of the the Obama's favorite spots for date nights when they lived in Chicago.

Spiaggia's beautifully inlaid marble floor wowed me immediately as we entered the restaurant lobby, and the view from our table, overlooking Lake Michigan, was lovely as well.

 Overall, the food was very good, and there were some real winners among the dishes we sampled, including the best dish of the night - my primo piatto - a raviolo filled with crescenza cheese and braised goat meat in a fragrant sauce surrounded by mushrooms (bottom left photo)

But some of the dishes were less than top notch, which is not what you expect when paying the kind of prices charged here. For example, a primo piatto of three tortelli d'erbette (top left photo) filled with swiss chard and ricotta was bland and under seasoned. This dish is a specialty of the region in Italy where my relatives live and I've eaten it many times there. This version fell short. For $28, you'd think the chef could have added more than three measly drops of Andrea's balsamic vinegar to liven up the flavor.

My main course of halibut (top row middle photo) was overcooked and hard around the edges, inexcusable when the cost is $54 for the portion.

On the plus side, the waitress let me taste a couple of wines before I found one I wanted to order, and the free refills of San Pellegrino all night long were an uncommonly pleasant surprise.  We also loved our antipasto selection. My friend Lilli and I couldn't help ordering the same thing - wood roasted artichokes with mozzarella di bufala, date puree, and zucchini (center bottom row - $26 each).  The basil-flecked bread and homemade bread sticks were noteworthy too, as were the complimentary chocolates and candied orange slices offered when we finished. 

 Lunch at Pizano's was more humble Italian food, including the above mentioned deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. 

 Preceded by a platter of perfectly prepared fried calamari.

 We were craving something light for the following night's dinner when we headed to Greektown and a restaurant called Santorini, that just oozed rustic charm. Nothing special about the grilled fish-in fact it was overcooked - but the platter of rapini and the grilled octopus were just what the doctor ordered following the heavy pizza and fried calamari lunch.
A visit to one of Rick Bayliss' restaurants was on my must-do list and we were lucky to get into Frontera Grill. After our lunch there, we both wished we could transport the place back East. 
 Our favorite item - not just that meal but perhaps on the entire trip - was a trio of ceviche dishes with different fish, each one presented in a martini glass - some with mangoes, some with grapefruit, some with avocados and other fresh and flavorful ingredients. 

But my favorite meal out was noteworthy not for the food, but for the company. That was the night we ate at Quartino's - a casual Italian restaurant that offers typical large portions of Italian-American food.

The food was just average, but the company - well that was exceptional. Joining Lilli and me were a blogger friend I've been wanting to meet for a long time - Marie of Proud Italian Cook (second from left). She brought along her friend Mary Alice and the four of us had a wonderful evening getting to know each other in person, after years of emailing.  Now if only she could find her way to the East coast so we could show her what New York food is all about! We're waiting for you Marie.

 Our eating adventure continued en route home. Lilli and I spotted a Rick Bayless outpost called "Tortas Fronteras" within Chicago's O'Hare Airport.  It was the perfect place to pick up a sandwich for the plane ride back to New Jersey - a griddle-baked sandwich filled with chicken, avocado, arugula, chihuahua cheese and cilantro cream - all served with a dipping salsa. With airlines cutting out meals on short flights, this was a welcome lunch - and better than any airplane food I'd eaten in the past anyway. Rick Bayless, won't you please move to New York?

 If you still haven't entered to win the Blue Willow china tea set I offered as a giveaway on my last post, it's still not too late. I'll be choosing a winner soon, so click here to leave a message on the blog post no later than Thursday, midnight Eastern time.

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  1. That looks great, good review.. Love the pictures. I found your post on Food Blogs :-)

  2. So jealous you broke bread with Marie! Lucky girls!
    Great, honest review of overpriced ($54. for halibut???) and average dinner, what a shame.

  3. Oh, lovely food! Now, I'm hungry. A great evening.



  4. Linda, meeting you and Lili was the best!You're even more gorgeous in person. I hope to meet you on your turf one day, I gotta see what all the hype is about the pizza out there! ( ha ha) Don't feel bad I don't do deep dish either!

  5. What a wonderful way to spend a weekend in the company of foodies and great food!!!

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  7. che bel reportage Linda e quante cose appetitose hai fotografato!un bellissimo weekend insieme a persone simpatiche, sei molto fortunata! passa una piacevole giornata, un bacione....

  8. Love Quartino! It's such a fun little place. Sounds like you had a wonderful trip. I'm heading that way in Oct. I'll have to make my way to Fronterra for sure.

  9. We missed Fronterra's - just too busy! So sorry now. And shy away from the real "biggies" (in price and reputation). I don't know why. But I was enchanted with Chicago, it's food and it's electricity. And next time - maybe I'll get to meet Mare! (Lucky you.)

  10. Looks like a great trip Linda... I must say, I have come around to Chicago style pizza although, I'm with you. Hope all is well!

  11. Quanti splendidi piatti e preparazioni!!!! Un abbraccio e buonissima giornata

  12. I'm taking that deep dish and calamari and calling it a night.

  13. I think that's great you got to meet Marie - you're two of my favorite bloggers! I'm a New York-style pizza girl, myself. :-)

  14. Since we're just 90 minutes from Chicago, we've had many a fine meal there over the years - once at Spiaggia, years ago. Sad that they've lost their touch and must be going on reputation alone.

    How wonderful to meet with fellow bloggers while you were there!

  15. Grilled cake...whhat a wonderful idea for those sweltering hot summer days:) That tea set is sooo beautiful...maybe I'll get lucky!!! (I hope.)

  16. Whoops, my bad...I'm not anonomous. Sorry.

  17. You ate at such fabulous places! I'm taking notes for my next visit ..and hopefully it won't be when I am on one of my husband's business trips where all the men want to eat is steak at Chicago's array of steak houses. Bobby Flay has a restaurant at 120 5th Ave in Manhattan--Mesa Grill!!

    Wasn't Marie and Mary Alice a lot of fun?