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San Diego (Day 2):  A Lambo, Gelato, and Rollin’ in Dough (Donut Bar, Nado Gelato, Village Pizza)

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Ah San Diego.  Home to the Chargers, the Padres, and their most famous mustaschioed ambassador, Ron Burgundy.  While we were visiting the city, we never got into antics like the Channel 4 news team like an anchorman street fight or having our beloved pet dog punted off the Coronado bridge, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a memorable time (I did get a new suit though for the wedding!).  47002647Our first day was fun, but Saturday was a non-stop rollercoaster that had plenty of thrills and a couple spills because we did eat and drink our fair share like any good tourists should.

If you didn’t read my first post, you can check it out here because our morning involved Janice’s friend and local fixer Amber who I introduced before.  Sadly, Ellie the schnauzer was not there to keep us company.  So, she brought us to a local breakfast favorite for both locals and tourists:  Doughnut Bar.  Now, coming from Chicago which has its fair share of fancy doughnut bakeries, I didn’t know what the big deal was about a company that specialized in creating mind-boggling sweets.  The line that stretched down the block that we soon found ourselves in spoke otherwise to my doubts.IMG_9625 IMG_9635  Amber recommended getting there the earlier the better as in like 8 am or 9 am if you want your choice of doughnuts because once the fried treats are gone, they close the entire store.   As we slowly shuffled like a horde of bleary eyed zombies toward our sugary host, something bright and shiny caught my eye.  It was just the Doughnut Bar owner’s new Lamborghini Aventor with a custom paint job. IMG_9629 I don’t know why other people weren’t as enthused as I was about this beauty of a machine just chilling on the side of the road.  It was a sign that it was going to be a great day on west coast.  Thankfully, the line moved quickly because we needed to get our sugar fix on before running off to get ready for the wedding ceremony!  I was having some second thoughts about rushing in and out after we set foot inside.  It was very modern and quirky with plenty of hilarious doughnut themed swag and artwork.IMG_9637 IMG_9640 IMG_9641  The true objets d’art were spread out in front of us like some type of heavenly bounty graced with every color and flavor of the rainbow.  According to Amber, they also switch around their menu and offer vegan options, so they know how to cater to people from all walks of life and keep them on their toes at the same time.  Janice and I didn’t know where to start because all of the doughnuts were calling our names.IMG_9643  There were chocolate ones,IMG_9644 ones made in homage to the local MLB All Star Game,IMG_9642 IMG_9646 cake batter,IMG_9647 and even one with a motherloving Pop Tart baked in the middle!IMG_9645 I didn’t want to look directly into its frosting for fear it would put the diabetic evil eye on me.  Plus, some honorable mentions among many.  IMG_9650 IMG_9649 IMG_9648We eventually made our choices, and they are not the cheapest doughnuts in the world at roughly 2-4 bucks a doughnut.  However, most of them are huge as you’ll see later in the post, and they are some of the most unique doughnuts you’ll ever taste.  Janice and I got a box of the Homer doughnut (mmmm sprinkles), a bacon infused cinnamon roll, a peanut butter cup doughnut, a Mexican hot chocolate doughnut, a Nutella doughnut, and a red velvet. IMG_9651 In addition to our to-go box, we got a French toast doughnut which was a doughnut fried and served up like regular French toast. IMG_9752 IMG_9754 This was an homage to the origin of doughnuts.  According to Wikipedia, some believe the word “doughnuts” came from the Dutch North American settlers who made oliekoek or “oil cake”, but the more compelling origin comes from a mid 19th century tale of an American boy punching holes in his fried dough because the centers were often raw.  This allowed for his dough to cook thoroughly and looked like the traditional doughnuts we eat and enjoy today.  However, the “nuts” part might have originally referenced the fried bits they poked out from the middle and have been referenced in writing as a uniquely American recipe as early as the early 1800s by none other than Sleepy Hollow author Washington Irving.  We enjoyed every bite of this fried piece of Americana as we chilled upstairs surrounded by plenty of interesting paintings and wall art.IMG_9757 IMG_9660 IMG_9659 IMG_9658 IMG_9656  The French toast doughnut also came with a side of butter, honey, and syrup.IMG_9755  I just went with the syrup, but it seemed almost like gilding the lily with how delicate and light the doughnut was.  It was an excellent investment and got us amped up for the very long day ahead of us.IMG_9756  Highly recommend this option if you have the chance to snag one from the hungry masses.  As we were leaving, there was still a plethora of people lining up outside, but I managed to sit in the Lambo which fulfilled one of my lifetime dreams. IMG_9664 Could this day get any better?  Oh yeah!  We got suited and booted and went also with our friend Kathy to the church on Coronado island.

Burt Macklin on the case!

Burt Macklin on the case!

 

Much better

Much better

We made it just in time, IMG_9760and it was a great service.  Personally, I think the flower girl and ring bearer stole the show until the bride’s grandparents came out.

Awwwww

Awwwww

They were so old but in such good shape and happy.  IMG_9763Definitely restored my faith in humanity.  The ceremony went off without a hitch,

The wedding party

The wedding party

and afterward I found myself once again face to face with another beautiful automobile.IMG_9680  This time around it was a classic Rolls Royce that the bride and groom were riding off in, IMG_9681but I wouldn’t have minded if they gave Janice and me a ride just around the block.  Instead, we wished them well and needed to find something to eat before the reception.  Walking around the beautiful isthmus of Coronado, we eventually found Fire and Fly Pizzeria.  It was bright and airy inside with outdoor seating in the front and rear of the establishment.  IMG_9683They seemed to specialize in brick oven fired, Neopolitan style pizzas.  They offer both premade and make your own pizza options in addition to a few sides.  We got an order of two broccoli and tomato pizzas and one chicken pesto pizza ($9 each).  I also got a local brewed Coronado beer ($6).  They were promptly cooked and served as we made our way to the back patio to enjoy the beautiful day and engaging food. IMG_9687IMG_9686 The pizza that Janice and I shared, the broccoli and tomato sans tomato, was good but too bland for my taste.  I’m a man of fiery foods, so the mix of mozzarella, ricotta, and herb garlic olive oil was a bit too safe for my palate.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a quality pizza, but I’d get a different pizza the next time around.  I preferred the chicken pesto pizza that our friend Kathy got because it was coated with a healthy, almost excessive top layer of arugula which gave way to pieces of chicken that were intermixed with mozzarella, pesto, and roasted peppers.  As for my California Amber, I realized that I wasn’t a fan from the first sip.  IMG_9685It had a slight pine/resin aftertaste which turned me off instantly, but it seemed like a trend in California to serve mainly lighter beers like lagers and IPAs.  What does a guy got to do to get a good stout/porter?  Still, Fire and Fly was an excellent place to grab a bite to eat before the wedding reception.  We finished our lunch and walked around the isthmus toward the Del Coronado hotel and decided to get some gelato at Nado Gelato.  IMG_9695It was a non-descript cafe that we strolled into and managed to beat the local crowd from the beach.IMG_9692 IMG_9693  A clear sign we made a good decision.  After looking over their numerous, mouth-watering flavors, IMG_9691 IMG_9689Janice and I got a small cup of the giandua (chocolate hazelnut) and salted caramel.  IMG_9690 IMG_9694It was reasonably priced and extremely high quality.  After learning so much from local Chicago ice cream shop owners in another post, we could tell from the rich, nutty flavor complimented by the salt in the caramel that we found the jewel in the crown of Coronado’s dessert scene.  Highly recommend this tiny spot if you’re looking for something sweet to cool you off.  Eventually, we reached the historical Hotel Del Coronado.  It was originally built in 1888 and didn’t look a year over 100.IMG_9765  Seriously though, it was a reception location that was without equal that I’ve been to in a wedding and hotels I’ve stayed in for my entire life.  We walked through the dark wood lobby under antique crystal chandeliers and past the wrought iron elevator up to the penthouse suite for pre-cocktail hour drinks.  Long story short, the views were terrible, and it was a mainly forgettable time.  If the written word doesn’t convey my sarcasm, I’ll let the view do the talking.

Life is hard

Life is hard

Before we made our way to the cocktail hour, we managed to witness a special part of Sabrina and Thompson’s wedding:  the Chinese tea ceremony.  I thought it was going to be a traditional Chinese ceremony to compliment the Catholic ceremony before, but it was more of a symbolic uniting of families through Sabrina and Thompson serving tea to the new members of their expanded familial network.IMG_9703  In return, they received lucky red envelopes containing many monies I assumed.  However, the real show stopper were the gifts for the bride and groom.  Thompson got a spiffy new watch, but Sabrina managed to wear half of Fort Knox’s gold in the form of two giant bracelets and a gold chest plate.  IMG_9768Once the ceremony concluded, we made our way through the hotel like some sort of entourage.  Jokingly, the girls said I looked like a secret service agent escorting some gold covered celebrity and her squad through to the afterparty.  Little did they know, I was trained by Burt Macklin from Parks and Recreation. 48164ac277ed50a145d31d4620cc4caf Luckily, we made it safely to to the very bright back lawn that was right next to the Pacific Ocean.  IMG_9704No big deal.  The setting was picturesque, the drinks were flowing, and the seagulls were out for burgers, mini-sliders to be exact.  They swooped down on us to steal food, but luckily we were looking stylish and freaked out in our sweet sunglasses party favors. IMG_9713 Their family dog, Bebe, however, was non-plussed looking so stylish in a bowtie. IMG_9705 Eventually, the clock struck the reception hour, and we were led to the back ballroom that was enormous and overlooking the same rear lawn where we were enjoying some classic wild animal attacks.  I won’t get bogged down in every minute detail of the reception in this post because it’s long enough.  In a nutshell, minus the odd band music, we made some new friends and got down with old ones even when the dancefloor was dead sometimes. IMG_9726 IMG_9717IMG_9720The food was par excellence (a dessert bar and a macaroni bar? yeah, that happened), and our one bartender we always went to made sure that everyone was having a great time.  By the time the band’s encore finished, Janice and I made our way past our fellow partygoers outside the hotel entrance who, like us, needed a comfortable bed.  However, our night didn’t end there.  Back at the Air BnB we tried some of the doughnuts from the first part of the post.  I loved the Homer doughnut because it was simple, iconic, and fitting for someone with a big appetite like me.  IMG_9771The Mexican hot chocolate one wasn’t that memorable even with the toasted marshmallows, but the Nutella doughnut was delectable as well as the red velvet one.  By that time, our friend Kathy had made it back as well, and we passed out after an incredibly long day with heads filled with memories and bellies stuffed with amazing eats.

Donut Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Fire + Fly Artisan Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Nado Gelato/Botega Italiana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Toronto (Final Day): Home Is Where the Heart (and ice cream) Is

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So, it has finally come to this.  The final installation in my Canadian food saga on Mastication Monologues (See 1, 2, and 3 here).  While the previous chapters had plenty of panache, today’s post will be going out on a very classy note.

Our day started on a very hot note as we made the trek across the city to the famed Casa Loma that was participating in Toronto’s food week a.k.a. Summerlicious. IMG_7065 What would be more summerlicious than fine dining in a castle?IMG_7066  The storied structure was originally built by Sir Henry Pellatt, a business magnate and loyal military servant to the Queen.  Aaron had told me before we visited that he built this mega-mansion for a woman who was supposed to come over to marry him but duped him.  Turns out that when we went there, we learned that he built it because he was extremely rich.  Go figure.  Beautiful as it was inside with plenty of crystal chandeliers, giant halls, and dark wood carpentry,IMG_7069IMG_7070 I missed a little bit of that modern air conditioning lovin’ as I proceeded to sweat my brains out.  Janice and I made our way out to the garden out back, and we were greeted with a wonderful fountain, lush foliage, and oodles of Asian tourists. IMG_7071 We had our wristbands on since we bought tickets ahead of time and on discount, so we were able to skip the long line into the Summerlicious fest like the ballers/shot-callers we naturally are.   We had a look over the food they had to offer while hunting for a seat, and it all looked great.  After a bit of time, Janice wrangled us a great table in the shade.  Aaron and Alyssa met up with us eventually due to a Google Maps error, but Janice and I were then quickly up and ready to run the buffet ragged.IMG_7087IMG_7088  We started off with some amazing Italian food.  First, there was the prosciutto (pro-shoot-oh or just pro-shoot if you’re a real paisan).  The word “prosciutto” comes from the Latin for “before” (pro) and “sucking out” (exsuctus) which then evolved into the modern Italian word “prosciugiare” meaning “to dry thoroughly”.  What does all this drying have to do for this heavenly meat?  Well, it’s basically a salted, dried, and aged leg of ham that is a pillar of Italian cuisine.  At the Summerlicious festival, the chef serving it was using an interesting slicer I’ve never seen before but sped up the cutting process for the slobbering diners lining up for the meat. IMG_7072 Janice and I picked up a rolled up slice each, and then next to the prosciutto was another Italian dish I had never tried before called panzanella.  It is a salad from the central Italian region of Tuscany, and it is not very in line with the Atkins diet.  The reason being is that this salad is based on bread; well, actually stale bread, but that’s neither here nor there.  It consists of the bread soaked in the vinaigrette along with tomatoes, onions, and zucchini.

Panzanella and prociutto

Panzanella and prociutto

It complimented the salty and savory meat with a light and slightly sour element to the opening plate of our meal.  We then moved on to the second plate of the day which was more diverse cuisine-wise.  First, I managed to snag a seasoned lamb kabob that was savory and spiced to perfection.IMG_7074  The smell alone coming off the grill was driving me crazy.  Then I followed that up with an Indian trio of butter chicken, jasmine basmati rice, and aloo gobi.  The butter chicken is a very mild dish in terms of Indian food, and it meshed with the rice to be a very filling part of the meal.  As for the aloo gobi, it is a traditional and simple Punjabi dish that consists of potatoes (aloo) and cauliflower (gobi). IMG_7075 It was different than traditional Indian dishes given that a plethora of them are typically swimming in a pool of sauce.  These dry veggies were aglow with a jaundiced yellow hue due to the tumeric and curry powder that was cooked into each piece.  It was ok, but not great.  The best part of round two was the mushroom cheesy risotto that was being served literally out of a giant wheel of Grana Padano (“grain” in Italian and the adjective for something from the Po River valley in northern Italy).IMG_7077  It was a creamy rice dish that had a Parmesan-esque sharpness in every forkful. IMG_7078 The final plate to the three ring circus of main courses ended with a vegetable slaw with lime dressing that was like something you could get in a P.F. Changs or slightly more upscale Chinese restaurant especially with the roasted, diced peanuts. IMG_7080 IMG_7090The better part of the third plate were the bison sliders with berry mostarda.  The bison tasted like a very lean beef with a bit more gamey flavor, but it was kind of drowned out by the berry mostarda that isn’t mustard but rather a traditional Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard flavored syrup.  IMG_7089We couldn’t put our finger on it if they were cherries or some kind of cranberry, but it strangely went well together as a savory and sweet kind of foodstuff.  Thankfully we didn’t eat breakfast because we had room for that sweet sweet dessert.  While they were serving three different types of gelato, I will save the ice cream for later in this post.  Instead, we chowed down on some white chocolate cannoli and a berry crumble.  Cannoli are well known as a quintessential Italian dessert, but in reality they trace their roots back to the Emirate of Sicily, i.e. when the Muslims ruled the island for almost 250 years.  In fact, some trace the name to the Arabic word “qanawat“.  These little fried tubes of dough were filled by hand right in front of us with sweet mascarpone cheese and garnished with white chocolate shavings.IMG_7092  I thought they could have made it better with some milk or dark chocolate shavings to balance out the sweeter cheese, but they were competently made.IMG_7093  As for the fruit crumble, I heard that it had strawberry and rhubarb in it which was a first for me.IMG_7094  I found it to be like eating a warm strawberry pie with the buttery crumbles, so I don’t know what the rhubarb brought to the equation.  IMG_7096The fresh blueberries and strawberries were also a refreshing solution to beating the heat.  After that we had an epic trek to one of the best ice cream places in all of Toronto according to Aaron who’s kind of a maestro when it comes to the cold stuff.  Ed’s Real Scoop was nothing special on the outside, but clearly on the inside it was happening based on the butt to gut traffic that was occupying the non-A/C interior which was brutal.IMG_7110  Still, I knew this place was my jam based on this punny size display, the large selections of ice cream, gelato, and toppings.IMG_7101  IMG_7104IMG_7105IMG_7109IMG_7107After chuckling to myself, I made the tough decision by getting a large with creme brulee ice cream and burnt marshmallow with a free topping in the form of Coffee Crisp, a Canadian candy bar that isn’t Stateside.IMG_7106  Pricewise, it’s not the cheapest place since my large was around 5 bucks, but I got a ton of ice cream for my money and a free topping! IMG_7111 Not only that, but they hand make all of their ice cream and waffles cones on their own machine that is right to your left when you walk into the store.  They take their ice cream, gelato, drinks, and confections very seriously, and this care is reflected in the quality from first spoon to last.  The creme brulee took me right to the Riviera complete with chunks of the burnt, crunchy sugar topping in each bite while the burnt marshmallow was perfect for a summer night.  All I was missing was a bonfire and some graham crackers to make some s’mores.  The Coffee Crisp was like a flaky wafer coated in milk chocolate that created that s’more effect.  Janice got a cinnamon cheesecake milkshake, and it was a slurptacular way to beat the heat as we walked along Toronto’s beachfront. IMG_7112 After walking for what seemed forever, we made it to Aaron’s neighborhood in the Scarborough area.  We hit up Casa di Giorgio Ristorante. IMG_7117 By this point, we were ready to devour some food, and this Italian eatery fit the bill.  The ladies got different types of pasta, so naturally I didn’t eat it.  Janice seemed happy with her tortellini alla crema ($16.95) which were cheese stuffed shells with a white cream sauce.  IMG_7114I opted for pizza instead.  They have so many great choices, but I picked the Veranzano ($16.95).  It had everything I love:  meat, cheese, and veggies. IMG_7115 The goat cheese and salty prosciutto balanced the fresh arugula and mild, roasted red peppers.  Based on my experience and the others’ plates, it was a good Italian restaurant if you’re looking for simple but well made food.  Aaron and Alyssa hadn’t even been there before, and they live there.  So it was a great hidden find and a molto bene note to end our stay in TO with our good friends and even better guests. IMG_7118 Thanks for everything guys, and see you on the open road!
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Laissez Les Bons Boefs Roulez!

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Beef.  The quintessential meat.  Hearty and filling, it can be found throughout many different cuisines served in very different forms.  If you visit Chicago, you can sample some of the best steaks in the country.  We used to be the butcher for the world with the Union Stockyards, but they have gone the way of smoking on airplanes and pay phones.

So.  much.  beef.

So. much. beef.

 

The Union stockyard gate then...

The Union stockyard gate then…

and now

and now

Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great porterhouse or t-bone.  If you’re not in the mood to drop some major paper on some of that red stuff, there are cheaper alternatives.  Enter another Chicago institution:  the Italian beef sandwich.  While other US cities have sandwiches that could be considered distant cousins to this hearty and humble meal like Philly’s cheesesteak or Pittsburgh’s Tommy DiNic’s Italian pork sandwich, the Chicago version is the best, I think.  In fact, it is so popular here that there are many restaurants that claim to have the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Today’s restaurant review revolves around one of the biggest names in the beef biz:  Mr. Beef.

Two of the biggest names in the city are Al’s Beef located in the Little Italy neighborhood and Mr. Beef on Orleans in the River North neighborhood.  Their rivalry is so notorious that it was featured on Travel Channel’s Food Wars.  I won’t spoil it for you, but I disagree who the real winner is.  Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been to Chicago, an Italian beef sandwich is one of those “must”s for Chicago tourists to try.  It’s in the holy trinity of a Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza, and the holy beef sandwich.  It arose from the Italian immigrant community’s need to make the meat last longer, so they sliced it thin, stewed it with spices, and slapped the tender meat on a fresh roll.  Thus, the Italian beef sandwich was born.  While I was working at a Mexican university that was located right next to the restaurant, I knew I had to pop over to try it since I’ve walked past it a million times but never tried their sandwiches. IMG_4930IMG_4931 So, I finally fulfilled my vow, and walked in to see a shop that is similar to other Italian delis with lots of pictures on the wall and a deli counter at one end with no fancy decorations. IMG_4932 Scanning the menu, I saw the beef sandwich I wanted, but it was 7 bucks.  I couldn’t believe how expensive it was compared to their competitors, so I was expecting this sandwich to justify the price tag.  I got it spicy which means that I got giardiniera on top.  I think giardiniera is also a Chicago thing since it comes from the Italian community also and consists of a mix of pickled vegetables and chili peppers in olive oil.  However, you can get it mild with cooked bell peppers or with no peppers at all.  Then there’s the juice factor.  You can get it dry or juicy, i.e. dipped in the same herb tinged broth the beef soaks in.  I always get mine juicy since it adds more flavor to savor, but you can get it dry to enjoy the freshness of the bread and the delicious beef.  After the brusque cashier took down my order, they set to making my sandwich.  As I was looking at the menu I saw they had other typical fast food staples like burgers, hot dogs, and sides like fries and onion rings.  Eventually, I finally got my sandwich and was ready to see what all the hubbub was about.  I got a seat in the back room at one of the super long tables you share with your fellow diners.  Once I opened up my wrapped up treasure, it looked mouth-watering. IMG_4995 From the bright verdant giardiniera to the fresh bread, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into dat beef.  The first bite was quite satisfying with a good ratio of bread to meat, but it lacked that spicy flair that comes with other dipped Italian beef sammiches.  The beef was tender and flavorful, but the giardiniera left something to be desired.  While other Italian eateries have a generous blend of veggies, I wasn’t a fan of the mainly celery based mix atop my meal.  It wasn’t as fiery as other spicy sandwiches which made it lose points, but it was innovative in the sense that the giardiniera was extremely crunchy to provide a bit of different texture to the mainly chewy sandwich.

So in the end, would I say Mr. Beef is the be-all, end all of Italian beef in Chi-town?  I’d say no.  It lacks the ingredient complexity of their competitors, and the relatively expensive price tag took it down a couple notches in my book.  However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try this fixture on the Chicago food scene.  It’s just a different take on a hometown classic, so maybe it will be better for you than for me.  Happy hunting!
Mr. Beef on Urbanspoon

You’ll Love Olive This Food

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Welcome one and all to another mouth-watering entry on Mastication Monologues!  This is part three of my Restaurant Week series in Chicago where a plethora of eateries open their doors to the public with great deals for some of the best food in the city, country, and perhaps the world.  Fig and Olive in the fancy Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago manages to bring the best of the entire Mediterranean region to the Midwest.IMG_5838

It was a fancy eatery to begin with, so I highly suggest you get on your Sunday best as we did on a Friday night.  IMG_5847 IMG_5846This place was so fancy we had to take an elevator up to the main dining room.  IMG_5839Once we arrived, we were greeted to the strains of light jazz and sumptuous surroundings in the form of long cloth couches in a lounge area. IMG_5843 However, we were led to our seat in the mainly glass and metal lined dining room with the creative bar that had trees growing out of the middle of the drink shelves. IMG_5840 IMG_5841 Nothing like admiring a little greenery while spending some.  When we sat down, our friendly waiter greeted us with the drink menu.  I ordered a glass of cabernet sauvignon- tenuta mazzolino from Italy.  It was a bold wine that had hints of smoke and blackberries.  While we were sipping on our wines, we got a complimentary olive oil flight with small cubes of rosemary foccacia. IMG_5849 The three cups were filled with an Italian extra virgin representative, a buttery Spanish olive oil, and a bold Greek olive oil that was a bit spicy.  The Italian option was good but not great.  The Spanish oil was extremely rich when the warm nooks and crannies of the foccacia soaked up the golden nectar.  As for the Greek entry, it slowly grew on me as the most palate engaging of the trio.  After that little appetizer, we ordered off the Restaurant Week menu which was $33 plus $10 for our crostini tasting which was recommended by a ton of people on Yelp.  This was 10 bucks well spent.  We got six of the chef’s choice, and when they came out, they looked amazing. IMG_5854 The most interesting thing about them was that it wasn’t as crumbly and stiff as typical crostini, but rather crusty yet soft.  First, there was the burrata, tomato, pesto, and balsamic vinaigrette. IMG_5856 It was in my top three as it was like a caprese salad on a fresh piece of bread.  Burrata is a softer than normal fresh mozzarella that also is a bit softer than a buffalo mozzarella.  It might not be for everyone with its goopy texture, but I couldn’t help myself.  Then there was the grilled vegetable crostini with the ricotta olive tapenade. IMG_5861 This crostino didn’t leave me with any sort of positive or negative impression.  It just tasted like a lot of olives yet not really.  Thankfully, I followed it up with a lovely manchego cheese, fig spread, and topped with a marcona almond. IMG_5860 This was also in my top three crostini since it was the perfect mix of the buttery and slightly salty manchego, crunchy almond, and sweet fig jam.  The mushroom crostino was in the same category as the grilled vegetable crostino, i.e. a less flavorful mix of greens with a healthy dose of Parmesan cheese.IMG_5855  Next up were the two seafood entries with shrimp and crab.

Crab

Crab

and ze shrimp

and ze shrimp

If I had to pick one, I’d go with the shrimp as being the lesser of two evils since I’m not a huge fish/crustacean fan (sorry, Aquaman).  Both were served cold which didn’t help, but while the crab just tasted like sweet, cold, flaky meat with a hint of avocado, the shrimp had a bit more body to it and a nice cilantro zing.  While we couldn’t choose the crostini, the table next to us ended up getting a sample of the one crostini I was hoping to get but didn’t.  It was the pata negra, tomato, peach, Parmesan cheese, and ricotta cheese.  I couldn’t believe our waiter brought it out to them because I was just telling Janice why the pata negra was the best crostini on the menu.  First off, the name “pata negra” literally means “black hoof” in Spanish due to the color of the pigs from which this ham originates.  Then there is the price of this precious commodity is anywhere from $52 to $95 per pound.  Why is it so expensive?  The reason why is because they are a specific type of black pig that roams southern and southwestern Spain and is raised to roam throughout the oak forests between Spain and Portugal.  They then eat the acorns that fall which then produces a peppery flavor in the meat with a good ratio between the fat and deep red meat.  It took me back to my time living in Spain where I couldn’t turn around without being smacked in the face with one of the large slabs of pork hanging from the ceiling.  Fast forward to that night at Fig and Olive, and I asked our waiter if we could try one of the ham crostino for free.  He obliged and was amazed that someone actually knew what this ham was.  It was my number one crostino hooves down. IMG_5872 The crimson ham, salty cheese, and fresh tomato made it an appetizer I wouldn’t soon forget.  Then the appetizers came out off of the Restaurant Week menu.  Janice got the octopus a la gallega or Galician octopus which was the best I ever tasted.  Even though I’ve been to the emerald green, northwestern province of Spain to taste where this octopus comes from, the thinly sliced tentacles at Fig and Olive bested the Iberian version. IMG_5865 I loved the spicy and sour lemon vinaigrette combined with the melt in your mouth texture of the tentacle laden creature.  As for me, I got the fig and olive salad.  It was delicious but not as unique as the octopus dish.IMG_5862  It was a melange of almost every variety of taste around.  There were sweet elements like the fig vinaigrette and apple pieces, salty manchego pieces, earthy greens, and crunchy walnuts.  The food train didn’t stop there.  We still had our entrees to take down.  Janice ended up getting the Mediterranean branzino or European sea bass in English.  It looked good, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. IMG_5873 I’m sure fish lovers would be bowled over by it though.  The only downside was that Janice said the plate overall was a bit one dimensional with a bland mashed potato side.  In comparison, I got the Fig and Olive tajine.  Now, Fig and Olive labels itself as an eatery serving the best of Italy, Spain, and southern France.  However, what they didn’t mention was that they serve North African food since diners would most likely be a bit hesitant to try something from Africa, and might not be seen as sexy as the three aforementioned cuisines.  Two good reasons why I chose it over all of the other entrees.  Tajine (in Arabic طاجين‎) originates from Morocco but can be found also in Tunisia and Libya.  It is traditionally stewed in a clay pot that tapers at the top to promote the return of condensation to the bottom of the vessel.  This technique definitely came in handy in the hot and arid climate of the former Barbary States.  As for what tajine actually is, it’s basically a North African stew of figs, olives, carrots, tomatoes, and onions.  At Fig and Olive, they don’t serve it in a clay pot, just a regular bowl, but that didn’t take away from the amazing flavors.  IMG_5875On the side, I got a bowl of couscous to mix in with the stew along with a bit of cilantro sauce and harissa (هريسة‎), known as “the national condiment of Tunisia”, mixed with some Spanish Hojiblanca olive oil.

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

Yellow couscous, green cilantro sauce, red harissa, and fresh almond slivers

I found the couscous a negligible carb element in the stew since it didn’t stand a chance going up against the giant vegetables and chunks of spicy chicken (beware of the bones).  However, I did like the harissa since it was a mix of chili peppers, garlic and coriander and managed to nudge itself above the intense flavors found in the dish.  By the end of our main course, we were stuffed and couldn’t think we could eat anymore, but au contraire!  We got both of the Restaurant Week desserts.  The dessert crostini wasn’t like their more savory brethren.   It was basically a cookie topped with candied cherries and a smooth and sweet mascarpone cheese. IMG_5881 IMG_5882I preferred the chocolate pot de creme which was like a fancy chocolate and vanilla mousse cup with a crunchy praline cookie on the side. IMG_5880 It was even better when I crunched the cookie up and mixed it into the decadent cream.IMG_5885

We left the restaurant with some trepidation due to the crush of people by the elevator upstairs and door downstairs and because we were so stuffed with delicious food.  Although it might not be the cheapest place for Mediterranean food, you can get high quality dishes for half the price in a modern and classy environment.

Fig and Olive on Urbanspoon

Catching Some Delicious Zzzs

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Welcome one and all to another molto bene Mastication Monologues!  Today’s entry deals with a food that has recently been linked to the epidemic of childhood obesity:  pizza.  Sadly, kids may love this cheesy treat, but it doesn’t love them back.  Still, who can honestly admit that they don’t enjoy a fresh slice right out of the oven with your favorite toppings from your favorite spot without any of the fuss of shopping, cooking, and then cleaning dishes?  This wonderful feeling of culinary satisfaction can be found at a local pizza spot by me called Zazzo’s Pizza in Darien, IL.

While I have had my fair share of different types of pizza from different parts of the globe, Zazzo’s is one of the front runners for a great thin crust pie.  I had never really paid it much mind as I went about my business to the the various stores in the area, but one day my parents had a coupon for it.  Thus the legend was born in my knowledge of all things food.  So, I decided to bring my girlfriend to the local eatery for dinner.  I was surprised to find that this pizzeria bought out the empty storefront next to it to build a new bar and dining room which essentially gave them ten times the capacity for revenue.  They’ve come a long way from the three tables along the front windows.  The new digs had a basic sports bar vibe, so no need for any sort of fancy attire.  IMG_4888The menu had the same no-frills approach as they focused on bar food and Italian cuisine. IMG_4887 We started the meal by sharing an order of spinach artichoke dip ($9.95).  This was a great appetizer since it came with both hot, crust Italian bread along with warm pita bread triangles. IMG_4889 The dip was also warm with a nice sprinkling of fresh Parmesan cheese that gave the artichoke chunks a slightly salty and nutty aftertaste. IMG_4891 We then went for the 14″ Veggie Special thin crust pizza ($21.10).  Now, it serves three, but when I’m hungry, I can really throw down, especially when it comes to Zazzo’s.  When it came out, it was just as good as I remembered it.  IMG_4892It was large and in charge with an enticing smell that immediately tells you that you’re in for a treat.  The Veggie Special consisted of an adequate amount of mozzarella combined with mushroom, green pepper, onion, and fresh tomatoes. IMG_4896 Each ingredient was as plentiful and fresh as the next.  As for the sauce, it was just the right amount where the crust wasn’t dry, but it also wasn’t gushing out with each bite like you’re doing your best Jaws impression (the killer shark, not the killer giant from the James Bond series).  IMG_4895Then there was the crust.  I believe that this foundation of the pizza can either make or break the dish, and in Zazzo’s case I love their thin crust.  It’s not super NYC thin but not deep dish thick.  It has a light powdering of flour on the edges, and it has an almost airy like texture with a crunch that doesn’t hold back.  All of these elements make it one of the hidden gems of the pizza world in the Chicagoland area.

So if you are looking for a great pizza place in the western Chicago suburbs and don’t want to visit one of the big pizza chains like Giordanos or Uno’s, check out the pizzeria with a lot of pizzazz:  Zazzo’s Pizza!

Zazzo's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Everything’s Coming Up Roses

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Well, the weeks in October are just flying by.  I can’t believe that October is almost finished, and Halloween is a week away.  My Game of Thrones costume idea has hit a snag, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out in time.  If not, I’m really in for a scare.  However, one eatery that is anything but scary is Rose Angelis in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago.10542851_686606968094365_102258942_n

Chicago has a mountain of Italian eateries that run the gamut from bare bones like Bombacigno’s to high end dining like at RPM, so choosing one is an easy task.  However, finding one with high quality food at low low prices is often times a difficult task.  Enter the aforementioned Rose Angelis.  I had never heard of this place before I was being whisked away to it with my girlfriend for her bday din din with her girlfriends.  The outside was simple yet elegant, and the inside was just the same.  As we walked through the establishment, it was furnished with paintings of Italian landscapes and small white lights.  The Christmas light motif was continued outside on the patio which set the scene for the perfect date night if you’re looking to do one next year (let’s be real, there’s nothing romantic about eating outside in the middle of a Chicago winter).  They were strewn overhead from one end to the other as we took in the atmosphere and the menu.  After ordering a bottle of rose and chianti, we got an order of antipasti in the form of the melanzane miniature alla parmigiana ($7.95) and the caprese roll. IMG_4229 The former translated to inglese is just eggplant Parmigiana or bascially baked slices of eggplant topped with marinara sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese.  While there was plenty to go around, I personally wasn’t wowed by this dish.  It was mostly well done aside from the eggplant which I thought was kind of on the mushy side instead of being firm yet tender. IMG_4230 I was more of a fan of the caprese roll since it combined fresh and slightly chewy buffalo mozzarella that then contained molto thin pieces of salty prosciutto and topped with basil leaves and a tart vinaigrette.  Then for my entree I ordered the pollo Florentino (chicken Florentine) ($19.95).  This dish was the embodiment of the abbondanza Italian food culture, i.e. lots of food=lots of love. IMG_4231 The two hulking panko-coated chicken breasts were napping on a puffy bed of risotto surrounded by semi-spicy marinara sauce.  When I cut into these giant piece of poultry, the provolone and spinach flowed forth like a rich artery-clogging river of deliciousness.IMG_4232  It was quite decadent, and if you aren’t super hungry, don’t expect to finish this meal in one sitting.  You will need a doggie bag…or two.  However, even though it was a giant plate, that doesn’t mean that the quality suffered.  The chicken was high quality and the risotto was delectable when combined with the marinara that had more of a smoky flavor than spicy.  As if that wasn’t enough, since it was my girlfriend’s birthday, they brought out a slice of cheesecake to celebrate.IMG_4234  I had a tiny forkful, but it was molto bene, i.e. just the right amount of creamy and cool cheese with crumbly but firm cinnamon infused crust.

In closing, Rose Angelis is one of those small Italian restaurants you’ve never heard of but with plenty of larger than life flavors and portions for great prices.  I highly recommend Rose Anglelis to anyone who loves Italian food and/or is looking for a romantic dinner date place.
Rose Angelis on Urbanspoon

The Bomb Diggity Delight

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If there is one culture in the world that is known for being in love with food, I would say that the Italian or French would have to duke it out.  The elegance of fine French dining versus the rustic simplicity of a hearty Italian festa di alimento.  Personally, I love both, but if I had to pick a winner in my heart, it would be the land of pizza and pannettone.  This might be down to my love for Chicago Italian food staples like Italian beef and giardiniera, but they just make food that makes my heart and stomach sing arias.  Thankfully, Chicago has plenty of eateries to cater to my tastes, but my girlfriend told me about one I had never heard about before.  It is called Bombacigno’s or J and C Inn (or Bambolobambo as my girlfriend says in perfect Italian).  It’s located right by Union Station which makes it a great place to get a first taste of Chicago’s Italian American community beyond just Little Italy.

Their lunch hours are quite short (11 am to 3 pm), so the rush is quite intense if you don’t time it just right like we did.  The outside was very nondescript.IMG_4152  However, when we walked in, we were greeted with an interior straight out of one of the Little Italy delis I used to hit up when I was in grad school at UIC, i.e. old school with linoleum floors, a dark wood bar, and the daily specials handwritten on the board in chalk.IMG_4154IMG_4153  Plus, there was enough nostalgic knick-knacks on the walls of times long past in Holllywood and Chicago to make it seem like an amateur museum of the Italian-American experience in Chicago and classic B movies.IMG_4159IMG_4160

Classic repartee

Classic repartee

Looking over the menu, we could eventually decipher that they had a mix of cold sandwiches, salads, soups, hot sandwiches, and grilled sandwiches.  NOTE:  They do not take credit cards.  Cash only!  I wanted something with roots in Italy, so I went for a foccacia sub ($7.25) and a side of cottage fries ($2.75).  Janice got a caprese sandwich ($8.75) which came with a cold pasta salad on the side.  Contrary to what other reviewers say, the staff was friendly and helpful, not rude and obnoxious.  You have to wait to hear them shout out your order, and then you can take your order to your table or to go.  I couldn’t wait to eat mine when they called out our names.  It all looked as fantastic as a Lamborghini on an open Tuscan road with no speed limit.  First, I just got to say that these were some of the best looking and tasting sandwiches I’ve tried. IMG_4157 From the fresh tomatoes atop the fresh and chewy focaccia bread to the expertly layered ham, capicola (gobbagool  or Capicola ham for those gavones out there), salami, and provolone cheese, it was a true Italian masterpiece. IMG_4158 The key ingredient that set this meal apart from other sandwiches was the Italian vinaigrette that provided a semi-sweet and sour splash of flavor that cut through the mostly salty and mild ingredients.  It kept me wanting more and more until it was all gone before I knew it.  I highly recommend this sandwich, and the cottage fries satiated me greatly as well.  IMG_4161They aren’t fries in the traditional potato spear form but rather like irregular, hand-cut potato disks (cottage fries takes less time to say I guess).  I really enjoyed them because they ranged from small and extremely crispy to as big as my face and soft.IMG_4163  Plus, they weren’t super greasy which is a big factor for me when judging the quality of fries.  I had a bite of Janice’s sandwich which was basically a caprese salad between two slices of Italian sliced white bread.IMG_4162  It had the same tart, dark vinaigrette that was on my focaccia, and the ingredients (buffalo mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, and sliced tomatoes) were all in harmony.

If you’re looking for a quality Italian restaurant that goes beyond Little Italy or  is more subtle than the over-the-top presentation of Italian Village, check out Bambacigno’s!

Bombacigno's J & C Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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