Cafe Spiaggia 980 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago
One of the things that people love about McDonald’s is that you know exactly what you are going to get no matter where in the world it is or whether it is June, December or September when you enter the golden arches. You know how long it’s going to take. You know approximately what it will cost. While there are some cultural differences in Mickey D’s offerings in parts of the world (pita burgers in Greece; no beef in India; rice and beans in Costa Rica), people really like that they can count on a Big Mac pretty much being a Big Mac in Bejing or Paris or Des Moines (the Indian lamb or chicken Maharaja Mac really is an exception).
That’s the attraction of Fast Food.
And then there is Slow Food. The “Slow Food” movement began in Italy. It is a movement that, in sharp contrast to Fast Food, brings together gastronomy, ecology, ethics and sheer eating pleasure, celebrating seasonal, regional and cultural differences.
The thing that makes authentic Italian food so special is that it highlights simplicity and the connection to seasonal, minimally processed ingredients. Even at the highest end, there’s not a lot of goo-ga. Just really fine, fresh ingredients that are stand up in their flavor and presentation and allowed to be appreciated on their own. They are often local or regional and haven’t been canned, frozen, processed or shipped.
Last week we ate dinner at Café Spiaggia, little sister to Spiggia, considered by many to be Chicago’s most authentic, venerable and respected Italian restaurant. Café Spiaggia shares a kitchen, a location and a website with Spiaggia. The Cafe is somewhat more casual and has a lower price point than Spigaggia.
The Cafe also shares Spiaggia’s designation as an official Slow Food restaurant in Chicago. Chef Tony Matuano is committed to buying as much produce as possible from local growers. He personally travels to Italy to choose the olives that will be used for Spiggia’s olive oil and the Sicilian sea salt that is on every table. Pasta is made daily, by hand, in the restaurant’s kitchen.
We had the absolute pleasure of dining (we didn’t just eat) there last week with our friend Elizabeth.
We started our meal with Piattini, or small plates.
The bocconcini (or morsels) were my choice: small rounds of the sweetest, creamiest, literally mouth-melting buffalo mozzarella you could possibly imagine topped with candied apples, apple mostarda, (a syrup typically made in northern Italy made from candied fruit – in this case apples – and mustard essence) making it quite sweet, but with a nice kick, thyme and lemon zest to balance the sweetness. I don’t know this for a fact, but given how amazing it was, it had to have been handmade at the restaurant. When it was brought to the table, the added scent of truffle was both unmistakable and tantalizing. Simple. And perfect. If you’ve ever tasted any other kind of mozzarella, you have eaten a totally different food. My eyes rolled back with pleasure at the first bite.
Elizabeth ordered Fegato, a chicken liver mousse crostini touched with blood orange. Chicken liver mousse? A crostini? Whatever. How interesting could that be? Fellow Foodbeest, to my shock, it actually topped the bocconcini in its insanely smooth mouth-feel and its sweet, layered, nuanced flavor. You must find a way get there to try it!
Mr. FB ordered six Kusshi oysters topped with apple and pink peppercorns. Harvested from the Pacific Northwest near Vancouver Island, these small oysters are unique in flavor: ultra-clean, sweet & light. Again: simple. Not messed up. Not standardized in any way.
I couldn’t decide between the tagliolini with olive oil poached tuna or the gigli with Manila Clams, so our waiter suggested I get a half-order of each.
The tagliolini, a typical ribbon-style pasta, similar to fettuccine, frankly knocked my socks off. I love olive oil poached tuna, and this was tossed with bright red, sweet Corno di Capra peppers, basil and breadcrumbs. As with the previous dishes, this dish allowed each ingredient to both speak for itself and strike a perfect balance between the sweet, savory, and salty; the texture crunchy, smooth and resistant, all at the same time.
I typically love pasta with clams, but this pasta, maybe in contrast up close and personal with the tagliolini, was … good. It was the only thing I tasted that was just ok. And maybe it’s because I cook it well and often that it just didn’t do it for me. The interesting touch it had were paper-thin slices of botarga. Now I had never tasted botarga before and didn’t even know what it was. Turns out botarga kind of a poor man’s caviar. Made from the roe pouch of a fish like tuna or grey mullet, it is massaged by hand to eliminate air pockets, then dried and cured in sea salt for a few weeks. Now you know, also.
Elizabeth had Cafe Spiaggia’s gnocci with a wild boar ragu that she declared the softest gnocci she had ever tasted. Mr. FB had the ruby trout with fava beans and guanciale. The guanciale was another simple, yet exotic Italian treat on our plates. It is an unsmoked bacon prepared from the cheeks or jowls of an Italian pig.
Everything was simple, uncomplicated, beautifully and skillfully prepared and a total treat.
Mr. FB ordered a pumpkin panna cotta for desert. It was topped with crushed biscotti and a lovely pumpkin seed brittle. While it was exquisite, I am not a fan of traditional pumpkin pie seasoning and, to my disappointment, this included a whiff of that.
I had a trio of sorbetti: passion fruit, cherry/balsamic, and grapefruit. The first two were fine, but the grapefruit reminded me of the pear gelato that I had at Grom, Italy’s organic gelato chain. Both that pear gelato and the grapefruit sorbetto tasted exactly like the fruit from which it was made. The sorbetto was nearly white and had all the sweet (but not too sweet) astringency that would constitute a mouthful of a good morning grapefruit. It perfectly cut the richness of the rest of the meal.
Fellow FoodBeest, I sometimes eat at McDonald’s. It’s fast, convenient, inexpensive and filling, if not particularly nourishing. But if food indeed can be an expression of life, and of love; if it is a gift from the earth that we give one another and ourselves, an occasional foray into what food can be as an art form that utilizes all five senses, is totally appropriate.
Fellow FoodBeest, we would love to have your comments, your thoughts, your reminisces, your questions or your ideas. Please share them with us in the Comments section below.