Keeping up with the food game these days can wear a mu’fucker out. I’ve been meaning to step down to Archer Heights for birria since last summer, I can’t stop hoping that the katsu don at Sunshine Cafe is the gooey comfort food we hunted down in Tokyo, and, even though it’s like a four iron away, I still haven’t tasted the pho at Pho 777 on Argyle.
Meanwhile, Timeout Chicago just published it’s 100 Best Things We Ate in 2008 issue and I’ve still got last year’s edition in the bathroom. Helen Rosner reps more food press than George Foreman these days. Since Creative Loafing took over, The Reader’s pretty much a food blog with a crossword puzzle. Phil Vettel admitted he’s bumped up his reviewing schedule at the Trib so he can keep up with the opening-night reviews of bloggers, who aren’t beholden to food review’s old-school traditions. Chefs are major celebrities (even the ones who are so creepy I wouldn’t put anything in my mouth that touched their hands). Food trends come and go as fast as runway fashions. Butchering whole hogs is totally in, but the pork belly backlash has already begun. Kimchee, I guess, is the new beet? Communal tables, pickling, Cuban sandwiches–all fresh. But molecular gastronomy? Not unless you wanna look like you just stepped outta June 2007, fool.
So, where does a Glutton go to duck the who-ate-it-first, who-found-the-remotest-taco-stand, who-cooked-for-who frenzy? Of course: Spiaggia.
Yessir, turkeys, when Gluttons needs a hammock, Gluttons brings a pimp cup for the lemonade. We leaned back to 1984, to Spiaggia, the now-classic Italian standard bearer where hype stopped being important around the time Arsenio Hall’s dogpound was the hot shit. You’ll find no edible menu at Spiaggia, no foam course, no 17 percent ABV stouts. What you will find is a gigantic tab (we paid like $350 before tip for the two of us,) a dress code (which forced me to buy my first suit–somehow I managed to slide into my 30s without one), a badass view of Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue, a waitstaff that was a handjob away from perfect, and the most well-planned out meal I’ve ever eaten.
I was hungry when we rolled in, the hole in my belly exacerbated by a pre-dinner Gibson, so it was all I could do to keep from stabbing the bread guy for his tray. But you don’t want to fill up on bullshit carbs like that here. Spiaggia is a place to be savored. And I mean really savored, like holding food in your mouth much longer that you think you should, or chewing every bite 75 times. Everthing we ate was simple and restrained, with each ingredient’s purpose clearly evident. Dinner had more balance than Mary Lou Retton.
The service at Spiaggia, as it should be at those prices, was off the charts. When my girlfriend returned from a bathroom run, a waiter came out of the wall to pull her chair out for her as she sat. Everyone was completely professional–available but not obtrusive–courses were presented on time, wine glasses kept at steady levels, the kitchen (visible through glass walls) quiet and clean, and, above all, the staff was friendly.
The night we went there were two tasting menus offered. We opted for the five-course D.O.P. menu. It went like this:
I. Cured ahi tuna with alfonso olives, shaved fennel, and Monti Iblei Sicilian olive oil
The first course was a textbook lesson on how to maximize good ingredients. We were served a deep red piece of raw tuna with shaved fennel, alfonso olives, Monti Iblei Sicilian olive oil, and sea salt. The first bite threw me a bit–I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting light and subtle from my first Spiaggia bite. Second bite in, I started to savor the tuna, chewed it like cud, and magically the oils and sea salt started to pop. By the end of our meal, I understood exactly why we started with the tuna. It was light and refined, a perfect way to introduce our palates to Spiaggia’s high quality ingredients. Also, since this is Gluttons, where two consecutive sentences of real food criticism is considered pushing the limits of total gayness, I’d like to request that this course be turned into a chewing gum.
II. Veal testa with pantellerese pesto
A Google search tells me “testa” means “head” in Italian, meaning we ate cow’s head without knowing it. The search also turned up this spectacular recipe:
Testa di Vitello alla Sorrentina (Calf’s Head)
Ingredients: Calf’s head, veal, sweetbread, truffles, mushrooms,
pistacchio nuts, eggs, herbs, spice, stock, bacon, ham.
Boil a half calf’s head well, and when it is half cold, bone it and
fill it with a stuffing of veal, the calf’s brains, sweetbread,
truffles, mushrooms, pistacchio nuts, the yolks of two eggs, herbs,
and a little spice. Then stitch it up and braize [sic] it in good stock,
with some slices of bacon, ham, and a bunch of herbs. Serve with
brain sauce mixed with cream.
So, yeah, round two was baby cow head. And it was delicious. Essentially, it was presented like, and had the texture of, a pate. The veal was pounded flat and served in a plate-sized thin square with pesto, olive oil, orange zest, and crunchy capers. Yet another dish with amazing ingredients meant to be savored slowly. Highlight for me were the capers. Prior to Spiaggia, the capers I’ve had have always been pickled, never prepared like this–all crunchy and shit. Of course, there was that restraint I mentioned earlier, so there were only like four capers per flattened cow head. I wanted a Baco-Bits can full of ‘em. The pesto, too, was tops. Oily and rich.
III. Pecorino Toscano filled ravioli with braised Tuscan greens and Parma prosciutto
Finally, playas get they cheese. And what wonderful little packages that cheese was delivered in. The raviolis were spot-on al dente and served with dark greens and crispy prosciutto bits. The sauce was sop-worthy. My girlfriend described the color as “khaki.” When I teased her about this, she corrected it with “toffee.” And again, this was some Benetton/We Are The World steez. In each bite the salty crisp of the prosciutto, endorphin-firing cheese, the slight snap of the ravioli, the bitterness of the dark greens, the “ecru” sauce. In Gluttons’ world, all food items are treated equally and fairly, like the colors of the rainbow. No hate here. We try to eat them all if we can. Except plain white rice.
IV. Wood-roasted sika venison saddle and sausage with fontina cheese polenta and Cilento figs
This was another immaculate combination of flavors and texture. We each were served three little rare venison pucks wrapped in sausage and nestled on soft polenta beds with a rich, meaty brown sauce. On top of each puck was a dollop of fig marmalade. Dag. The polenta was like a cheese pudding laced with tryptophan. One bite and my eyelids dropped like the Dow. And the fig dollop was miraculous–just enough to get that sweet figgy goodness into half my venison bites, but not enough to keep this dish from being the savory climax of the meal. Where I grew up, seeing deer carcasses strapped to car rooftops was the norm in November. No one ever told me those were the most delicious cars on the road.
V. Robiola di Roccaverano, Gorgonzola Dolce, Taleggio and Castelmagno with Alto Adige speck and lemon marmelade
The only miss of the night was the second cheese, the gorgonzola, which was a bit dry and crumbly for me. The other three, though, were three of the most delicious cheeses I’ve ever met. I’ll be a cheese expert in another life, but for this one I’ll leave the informed cheese criticism to the professionals. We’ll have to make do with this: The first cheese tasted like–and I’m serious–gourmet Easy Cheese and the last two were so creamy and pungent and rich and wilted and salty and complex that I had to bite my lip to stop myself from straight up moaning like Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally.” And the waif of speck tasted like beef jerky snuff. I love beef jerky snuff.
VI. Piemontese hazelnut and caramel tart
Typically, I eat a bite or two of dessert and call it quits, but not this night. I wanted to taste everything I possibly could. Desert and espresso were, as can be expected at this point, good as hell. We ate up the tart and then finished off the five or six samples they brought out for us, too. And the dessert wine they brought us, we drank that too.
All told, I felt great afterward. Not overly stuffed, but certainly not hungry. We left just enough room to walk down the street to the bar at The Peninsula where we had a drink surrounded by a bunch of business-expensing assholes, witnessed some borderline racism, and talked about how effing amazing our experience at Spiaggia was. It’s the bee’s knees, friends.