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Monthly Archives: April 2007

Far Above “Sub” Par

Italian Special SubAnyone who works in Chicago’s Loop knows there is a serious dearth of lunchtime eateries that are both inexpensive and not chains. When I worked in the area, most of my colleagues would trudge off to Cosi, Chipotle or some other generic chain. I would eat my homemade lunch feeling satisfied that I hadn’t wasted my money or calories.

Luckily, my friend the Scarlet Pumpernickel has similar standards to my own. He works at the Art Institute and has made a point of seeking out nearby non-corporate establishments with more interesting and delicious cuisine. On one of our lunchtime meet-ups during the work week, Scarlet Pumpernickel took me to the excellent Fontano’s Subs.

The original Fontano’s is located on Polk Street in Little Italy, but this one, on Jackson seems just as old timey. Most of the people coming up to the bare-bones formica counter were working men with the appetites to match. Subs are available in six-inch, eight-inch, ten-inch, twelve-inch, sixteen-inch and three-foot lengths. Let me be the first to advise that six-inch is usually plenty.

I ordered the Italian special (pictured above), which came with prosciuttini, capocollo and provolone cheese. True to my tendency toward spiciness and sourness, I added hot pepper, onions and pickles. Italian dressing is also a necessity when it comes to adding moisture to these subs. This is far preferable to the less authentic and heavier mayo. Other sandwiches I hope to try some day include: Wise Guy (my sandwich, but with Genoa salami), Prosciutto (made with imported prosciutto di Parma) and the hot Italian beef and meatball sandwiches.

Breaded Eggplant SubScarlet Pumpernickel tried the breaded eggplant sandwich, which is also served hot. It may not look so delicious in this picture, but the rich warm tomato sauce and the earthy fried eggplant can’t be beat. He also added hot peppers, but there was little need for additional condiments in this case.

The greatest thing about this sandwich and the Italian beef, meatballs and sausages is that all of the meat is made in-house— not purchased from a large distributor or extracted from a package that has been frozen for eternity. This is simple Italian American food at its finest, and it’s a great place for a cheap and delicious Loop lunch.

Fontano’s Subs
20 E. Jackson St.
Chicago, IL 60604

Fontano Subs in Chicago

Una Notte a Napoli

Margherita pizzaAfter living in Chicago for about a year and a half, I have gained an appreciation for the city’s traditional deep dish and stuffed pizzas. These are rich, filling, pizzas that truly merit the follower “pie.” But when I envision my pizza ideal, it is much closer to the chewy, slightly charred Neapolitan-style pizza served at Spacca Napoli.

There are a number of factors that make the pizza here so good. First, the dough is hand-extended, not tossed, making for an authentic, beautifully textured crust. Secondly, the ingredients from Italian olive oils and flours, to fresh fior di latte mozzarella and beautiful, ripe tomatoes, are of the best quality. Finally, the pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven, giving them the delicious chewy lightness and the perfect edge of char. EB and I concur that the offerings here far surpass Italian-style rivals Pizza DOC and Gruppo di Amici.

Empanada Boy and I dined at Spacca Napoli last night with EB’s childhood friend English Muffin Pizza and the latter’s girlfriend, Spumoni. As is the case on most weekend nights, there was about a half hour wait to be seated. Luckily, it was a beautiful evening and we were able to order a nice bottle of Pinot Bianco to pass the time as we sat outside.

Caprese salad When we did sit down, we ordered this delightfully fresh and flavorful caprese salad made with imported mozzarella di bufula and a moscardini salad— grilled baby octopus atop arugula, with a flavorful olive oil dressing. (Note: I foolishly forgot to bring my camera to dinner, so these rather grainy shots are the best we could do with EB’s new phone.)

Capricciosa pizzaOur pizzas arrived soon afterward. The margherita (pictured above) was the picture of delicate simplicity. It came with a thin layer of lively, fresh tomato sauce spotted with melt-in-your mouth blotches of fior di latte mozzarella and scattered with fresh basil The pizza’s crust was wonderfully airy and infused with the deep flavors of olive oil and crackly char. We also tried the capricciosa, which was similar to the one I tried in Italy , with artichokes, olives and mushrooms, except it included prosciutto instead of sausage and was missing the fried egg in the center. The Neapolitan-style crust is also puffier and lighter than the Roman-style, which is thinner and crispier.

We were grateful for the lightness of the pizza when we succumbed to dessert afterward. EB and I shared a well-liquored and coffee infused, tiramisu, and English Muffin Pizza ordered a piece of his own. Spumoni earned her name by ordering a wedge of that eponymous rainbow-colored Neapolitan ice cream.

It was a beautiful meal from start to finish, and it was simple in the way that only the best Italian food— relying on the finest ingredients— manages to be.

Spacca Napoli
1769 W. Sunnyside Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640

Spacca Napoli in Chicago

Palace of Mystery (and Vegetarianism)

PooriEvery diner has experienced orderer’s envy where you wish you had ordered the same thing as someone else. I have learned to avoid this unlucky condition through a number of strategies, including: Choosing whatever sounds best from on the menu with no regard for health or calories; opting never to order a salad at a place that specializes in burgers or tacos. (Iceberg lettuce with wilted tomatoes and bad dressing is usually the result); and, finally, looking around at what other people who seem to be in the know are eating.

But, despite our best efforts, Empanada Boy and left I our dinner last night with an acute case of ordering envy. We had been eating at Udupi Palace, a vegetarian South Indian restaurant on Devon Ave., Chicago’s Brick Lane. I have only eaten at one other South Indian restaurant, so my inexperience with the cuisine was the first problem. Besides being completely vegetarian, these restaurants tend to specialize in large crepes called dosai and large vegetable pancakes called uthappam, a fact which I learned too late. They also don’t eat naan, the traditional Northern Indian bread, preferring deep-fried poori (pictured above), which reminded me of sopapillas. Unfortunately, there were few Indian families sitting nearby when we first sat down to serve as reliable menu guides. They all came in after it was too late.

Chile PakoraNow, on to our rather lackluster meal. EB and I started of with the chili pakoras, which were hot peppers dipped in chickpea flour and deep-fried. The peppers were definitely spicy, but the chickpea flour batter was too thick and bread-like for my taste. I know this is the traditional texture of the flour when it’s fried, but I think it works better with larger items like vegetable pakoras because it spreads out more thinly. The heat of the peppers was also moderated by lively mint and tamarind chutneys.

Paneer WrapWhen he saw his entree, EB immediately regretted having ordered it. The dish was a piece of thin, tortilla-like Indian bread, wrapped around kadai paneer, cubes of Indian cheese cooked with onions and green peppers. It came with a sad garnish of old lettuce and unripe tomatoes, looking like one of those dreaded “health wraps” that so many restaurants have added to their menus. The filling tasted miserably under-spiced and kind of mushy. Quoth EB: “I never should have ordered something called a wrap.”

BaiganMy selection, an eggplant dish called bhaigan bartha, was a bit more successful. It was rich with plenty of eggplant and curry flavor, but the creaminess of the eggplant and the lack of depth that would have come from meat left me wanting more of a kick. That could have come in the form of spice or acidity, but it seemed sorely lacking in this dish. The basmati rice that we ate it with could have also done with more flavoring from ghee or other spices.

Mango Lassi and RasmalaiDesserts came to the rescue in a small but significant way. EB and I shared an order of rasmalai, crumbly cottage cheese balls served in condensed milk flavored with rosewater and pistachios. This was refreshing and tasty, although I prefer other versions I’ve tried that had a richer condensed milk and a stronger rosewater flavor. Fittingly, EB and I both enjoyed the mango lassi, my namesake and a drink made with mango pulp and yogurt. It was smooth and creamy without weighing us down.

The meal at Udupi Palace wasn’t what I’d hoped, but I know I ordered the wrong things. I’ll have to go back sometime to give those dosai and uppatham a try. And, of course, to enjoy another mango lassi.

Udupi Palace
2543 W. Devon Ave.
Chicago, IL 60618

Udupi Palace in Chicago

Matzo Brei

I am still observing Passover this week, so instead of a restaurant critique, I have decided to offer you a recipe. Although it might not be the most attractive dish, matzo brei is one of the things I most look forward to as Passover approaches. I have already eaten it four times since the holiday began.

Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine writes of her love for matzo brei in one of her many autobiographical books. Here is the recipe she uses, which is also printed in the Gourmet cookbook.

Matzo Brei

4 matzos
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter

Crumble matzos into a large sieve placed over a bowl to catch crumbs, then hold sieve under cold running water until matzos are moist and softened but not completely disintegrated, about 15 seconds. Transfer to bowl with crumbs, add eggs and salt, and mix lightly with a fork.

Heat butter in a 10- to 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides. Add matzo mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until eggs are scrambled and matzo has begun to crisp, about 3 minutes.


Oysters on a Half Bun

SignEmpanada Boy and I are in Portland visiting our respective family members and getting ready to celebrate Passover. After a delicious, but pricey, lunch on Friday at Wildwood in Portland, I was back in the groove of fresh, local Northwest-style eating. That theme carried into our meal of freshly caught dungeness crab from Cannon Beach’s Ecola Seafood. Unfortunately, Wildwood is above my price range and beyond the confines of this blog. But yesterday in Cannon Beach, we visited another spot that serves cuisine that is just as quintessentially Northwest in spirit.

BeerThat place was the Warren House Pub, an historic house turned into a restaurant and brewpub. The house, which is South of the heart of Cannon Beach, was originally owned by William and Emma Warren, early pioneers to the area. It’s owned by the same people who own Bill’s Tavern, a popular pub and brewery on the main strip of town. Bill’s makes its own beer, and the Warren House serves that along with a few other options.

I tried the hop-infused Duckdive Pale Ale and Mango Mama and Daddy Salmon both ordered a hefeweizen known as Foggy Notion. EB tried the Shark Rock Red made by the Astoria Brewing Company in Astoria, OR. It was late, and we were all in serious need of some sustenance, so these already tasty brews seemed even more divine.

BurgerWhat better to pair with a beer than a burger? That’s exactly what Mango Mama was thinking was she ordered Ken’s Big Boy, a truly well-made burger, topped with grilled onions, mushrooms and Pepperjack cheese. This was a simple, yet decadent option, served on a plump Kaiser roll. It proved the already well-established point that mastery of the classics is a sign of greatness. The burger comes with a choice of chips or pea salad, and Mango Mama chose the later. The salad is a relatively light mixture of green peas, onions, bleu cheese and water chestnuts. It is a perfect side dish for a heavy meal, virtually guaranteeing that you can’t leave feeling as uncomfortably full as you would with a side of fries.

Oyster burgerEB and I took burgers to a new level by ordering the oyster burger, made with a tender fried oyster from nearby Willapa Bay breaded in panko and grilled. It was delicious, flavorful and filling, despite being much smaller than the burger. EB and I were in heaven after taking our first bites because we could taste the ocean in those oysters, making them into symbols of that time and place.

Daddy Salmon tried a riff on schwarma with the Greek “Meats” West sandwich, made with lamb, mushrooms and olives, among other things stuffed into a pita. I thought there was too much of the caper feta cheese sauce on top of the meat. The dish was tasty, but it lacked that special connection to the surrounding environment that we tasted so clearly in the oysters.

Empanada Boy and I look forward to our return trip to the Warren House Pub. When we come back next time, we’ll taste another seasonal beer and sample more unique local pub fare. Maybe then we’ll get another taste of the Oregon Coast with the Pacific halibut burger. My mouth waters at the thought of it.

Warren House Pub
3301 S. Hemlock St.
Cannon Beach, OR 97110