Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cafe Spiaggia, Chicago IL

Call it ignorant or whatever you like but as a midwesterner brought up on chain Italian and (even worse) chain pizza I still have problems today seeing Italian as "fine dining." Sure I've been wowed by a handful of high-end Italian eateries - Babbo, Al Angelo, and Rigsby's to be exact - but generally I prefer to spend my dollars on French, fish, or 'new-American.' As another mark of my upbringing I can honestly say that it is rare for a pizza to wow me, be it New York, Chicago, St. Louis, or a matter of fact, if I had to choose a "favorite" pizza it would likely be something along the lines of Californian, or Batali’s at Otto - blasphemy, I know. With all that said, tiramisu is amongst my favorite desserts on the planet and gnocchi is my favorite savory carb - a standard by which any restaurant serving it is judged. Being in Chicago, unimpressed with their pizza in the past, and wanting Italian for lunch I was delighted when someone recommended Cafe Spiaggia as a lunch option - gnocchi, tiramisu, thin crust octopus and creamy polenta? Oh my. Doing my research prior to scheduling reservations I must admit I was surprised I’d never heard of Chef Mantuano before and was even more amazed that the Café shared a kitchen with the main house restaurant – what a brilliant idea, akin to the celebrated Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

After a huge breakfast at Bongo Room and a number of hours browsing the Museum of contemporary Art and Water Tower Mall a late lunch at Spiaggia was perfectly situated for a light meal and a quick walk down North Michigan Avenue had us there in no time at all. Hidden on the second floor of what looks like a mere office building it would be easy to miss Spiaggia and the café if one weren’t looking, but the moment we arrived the man at the desk pointed us to the second floor and with reservations for 1:30 we were seated immediately. In mere moments water was poured, specials explained, and orders were placed. Browsing around the tiny restaurant I was immediately struck by the quaint yet beautiful interior, sweeping view of Michigan Avenue (still decorated for Christmas,) and well heeled patrons – call it “mid range” if you like, but in my opinion the setting was on par with “fine Italian” in many other cities.

A few minutes passed before we were brought bread – a lusciously soft Italian with hearty crust and a fantastic Tellagio flatbread that easily topped the options served at Babbo and Spago respectively – and house olive oil. While the bread was impressive, the olive oil was even moreso in its elaborate undertones of mint and lemon – suffice it to say I vastly overconsumed from the bread basket, as did everyone else.

Another fifteen minutes passed before we were brought our two appetizer dishes – the POLIPO of Wood roasted baby octopus with cicerchie toscano beans, frisee, and olive vinaigrette and the FUNGHI of Wood roasted mushrooms with Anson Mills slow roasted yellow polenta. While both dishes were excellent and perfectly prepared, it was the polenta that truly wowed while the octopus was merely “good.” Cheesy and decadent in all ways with pefectly roasted porcini, oyster, and hen of the woods mushrooms the polenta was better than the dish at Simon’s Lola and on par with the stellar cheesy mushroom risotto at Alex earlier this year – worth every cent despite the somewhat small portion.

The octopus, a whole roasted African if I’m not mistaken, was truly excellent but was unfortunately overwhelmed by the strongly flavored olive tapenade with hints of spice. After the superb presentation at Al Angelo and Babbo earlier this year I must say I’d probably skip this dish on future visits, yet at the same time wish I could prepare octopus so perfectly at home.

Approximately twenty more minutes passed (and another bread basket) passed before the delivery of our mains – the gnocchi, the cappelacci, and a bianca pizza – once again we ordered too much, but once again it was worth every cent (and unlike Bongo Room, this food was made for travel and reheating.) Sharing all items around everyone had a favorite, but everyone agreed that for the price this was some of the best Italian food to ever grace our palates.

Starting with the pizza, entitled BIANCA and topped with wild mushrooms, fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano and white truffle oil – wow, what a pizza. Cracker thin crust, no tomatoes, minimal seasoning, just the natural flavors of the incredibly fresh ingredients – as good as any pizza I’ve ever tasted and reason enough alone to put Café Spiaggia on the must-visit list….yet the least impressive of our three mains.

The second dish tasted - and the favorite of everyone else at the table - the CAPPELACCI of Hand crafted butternut squash filled pasta with brown butter, sage and Parmigiano Reggiano harkened back to Batali’s famous Pumpkin Lune yet the portion was nearly twice in size and the price slightly less. Delicate yet toothsome, sweet yet savory, light yet powerful the dish was fantastic and though the pasta was not quite on par with that at Babbo, the filling was better.

The final dish, and my personal favorite of the meal, was the GNOCCHI with hand crafted potato gnocchi with wild boar ragu and Parmigiano Reggiano. Soft and flawless, the needle shaped pasta were light and airy yet texturally sound and each perfectly consistent – almost impossible to believe they were handmade. The sauce…oh my, the sauce…large piles of shredded boar seared medium and mixed with a juicy tomato/olive reduction and topped with flakey salty Parmigiano…every aspect of this dish crushed the version at Babbo and plate was literally wiped clean with the remaining bread before returning to the kitchen. Amazing and rivaled only by Rigsby’s stellar version for best Italian-style gnocchi ever.

Feeling full already with plans for Moto that evening we almost skipped dessert, but a single look at the menu made that unlikely. While all 7 desserts as well as the gelato and sorbetti selection sounded amazing we opted for a slice of the Tiramisu and 4 forks – we were not disappointed. After some recent mediocre tiramisus (both in Columbus and NYC,) the version at Café Spiaggia was a revelation with the whipped mascarpone cream providing a perfectly airy and light contrast to the heavenly buttery lady fingers soaked in Illy espresso and dusted with cocoa. The lightest hints of rum, evenly dispersed, were an additional bonus as too many other versions (including Batali’s) suffer from no rum at the top and too much at the bottom. While not quite as amazing as Jean-Philippe’s mind-blowing version in Vegas, the portion and price were certainly more palatable and the flavor and texture nearly as sublime.

Fully satisfied we settled the bill, less than $100 with tax and tip, and made our way back to North Michigan where we found the temperature to have lightened up and enjoyed another four hours of shopping the streets of Chicago. Great service, fantastic food, and bargain-basement prices for the service and quality – my next trip to Chicago will undoubtedly see me at the main house for some of the more experimental dishes, but for now I’ll be amazed that a mere “café” provided me with one of the best Italian experiences in recent memory.

1 comment:

Skybridge Studios said...

Wow, what a gustatory tour de force! I appreciate the photos and descriptions of the food and service you experienced in Chicago. I'm looking forward to experiencing these places, too!