Has it jumped the shark yet? Is bacon as ubiquitous as tiramisu on Taylor Street? Some would argue yes, but many in the food community say bring it on. While the back/side of the hog – the source of bacon – continues to show up on nearly every menu, right alongside beet-and-goat-cheese salads, if you love it salted and dried (or smoked), here’s your pocket guide:
1. The Publican (brunch only), 837 W. Fulton Market, 312-733-9555
2. Sweet Maple Cafe, 1339 W. Taylor Street, 312-243-8908
3. Bobak’s, 5275 S. Archer Avenue, 773-735-5334
4. Butcher & Larder, 1026 North Milwaukee Avenue, 773-687-8280
5. Paddy Long’s, 1028 West Diversey, 773-290-6988
Honorable mention: City Provisions Deli
Grabbing a beer and a shot in Chicago is easy. But it seems like every other neighborhood bar has the same menu these days: (fill in the blank) sliders, “flatbreads” (a.k.a. weak pizza) and that ubiquitous duo – beets with goat cheese and/or some form of pork belly.
But there are bars in Chicago where the kitchen takes its side of the bargain more seriously; where chefs have either consulted on the menus or are executing the dishes themselves. These five all take creative approaches to bar food, and offer delicious companions to the craft beers that often steal the show. I’ve added one dish (parenthetically), that I think is a worthwhile investment.
I realize the sheer number of Italian restaurants in our area makes this a somewhat daunting proposition. After last week’s “overrated” edition, I’m turning to my top 5 this week, and all of these places have a few things in common: for one thing, they make pretty much everything – from the grissini and focaccia, to the pasta and desserts – from scratch. Second, the emphasis is on nuance – a hint of lemon here, a whisper of oregano there – rather than overwhelming you with white wine, garlic and tomato-vodka-cream sauce, then feeding you more food than you could ever possibly eat in one sitting (thus, requiring doggie bags).
Which brings me to my third point: these are Italian restaurants in the sense that the owners/chefs have either worked or lived in Italy for some time; they’ve trained there, they know about the lovely progression from antipasti to primi, then onto secondi and dolci. They don’t push overpriced chianti and they don’t brag about their tiramisu.
These are Italian restaurants that my friends from Bari would feel at home in as much as my college girlfriend who spent a semester in Rome would. Buon appetito!
I realize today is St. Patrick’s Day, but did you also realize that Saturday is St. Joseph’s? This Italian day of feasting occurs during Lent and features several seafood courses, if not an entire spread (don’t forget the zeppole!) I figured now was as good a time as any to reveal what I believe to be are the Italian joints that get more praise than they deserve. (My Top 5 favorite Italian will appear in this space next Thursday).
Enough already. Just because your uncle Vito went here during trade shows and your cousin Angie ate here during prom doesn’t make it authentic. Let me ask you this: when was the last time you saw tomato cream vodka sauce in Italy? 1500 W. Taylor St. (among others), 312-942-1117.
Went here last week after hearing loads of praise for this charming cafe-within-a-corner-grocery store. Had the homemade 8-finger cavatappi, which tasted like undercooked, water-soaked cardboard; the meatball sandwich was similarly lacking in flavor. Didn’t see any Italians in the kitchen. 2724 S. Lowe Ave., 312-225-6368.
Melman’s masterstroke for the masses (and huge payday from Brinker Int’l), but lowest common denominator “ItalianLand” food for tourists. When the emphasis is on big portions and doggie bags, you know there’s a problem. 516 N. Clark St. (including many more nationwide), 312-644-1077.
4. Ristorante Agostino
Great old-school vibe, but few, if any pastas made in-house. Yearround caprese salads and $20 linguine from a box/bag don’t inspire confidence. 2817 N. Harlem, 773-745-6464.
5. Mia Francesca’s
I went back-and-forth on this one. I used to love the original on Clark Street, when there was just one. Today, the food seems watered-down – again, for the masses, so as not to offend anyone – and there just isn’t the same vibrancy; too many other places have surpassed it in terms of bold flavors and scratch cooking (if you live in Northbrook or Arlington Heights, I realize you think I’m crazy, but I’m sorry you have so few options out there). 3311 N. Clark St. (as well as every suburb near Chicago), 773-281-3310.
Honorable mention: La Scarola. Headshots of athletes rarely guarantee high-quality or authenticity (see: Ronny’s Steakhouse); who puts “light chipotle sauce” on bowtie pasta? I agree the vibe is lively and fun, but for food, I’ll walk a few yards West to one of my favorites…(next week).
The Hawks have been on a tear (with the exception of the last two nights), as they head into the home stretch, (hopefully) headed for the playoffs. With just 14 games left in the regular season (six of which are at home), demand for seats is high, which is why you might want to gather with fellow fans at one of these fine watering holes for food, drink and plenty of TVs.
1. Hawkeyes Bar and Grill, (1458 West Taylor St.; 312- 226-3951)
2. Justin’s, (3358 N. Southport Ave.; 773-929-4844)
3. The Pony, (1638 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-828-5055)
4. West End Bar and Grill, (1326 West Madison St.; 312- 981-7100)
5. Rocky’s Bar & Grill, (234 W. 31st St.; 312-842-9200)