Antonio Rallo talks to Chicago about Sicilia DOC and making wine

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Alberto and Antonio bring Chicago the news about Sicilia DOC
Alberto and Antonio bring Chicago the news about Sicilia DOC

Antonio Rallo, winemaker at Donnafugata Wineries is a tall, slender, handsome man who is currently president of Sicilia DOC. He came to Chicago recently to share news about Sicily’s passionate rededication to consistently high quality. He spoke fervently about the new consortium of Sicilian winemakers, Sicilia DOC. As of 2012, he said, every winemaker on the island banded together to form Sicilia DOC—a rare case of consensus in Italy, where winemakers tend to be fiercely independent.

Sicilia DOC intends to be a new force in the wine world with its many winemakers, one of whom, Alberto Buratto of Baglio di Pianetto, came visiting with Antonio. “Sicily has the biggest vineyards in the world,” said Antonio. In the small area around Trapani on the northwest segment of the island, he said they produce 3,500,000 hL (hectoliters) of wine every year. Surprisingly, despite Sicily’s 600 miles of coastline, the country has no vineyards in those areas. But since a mere 11% of the land in Sicily is flat—not good for growing grapes—they’ve got plenty of other space to do so. The island is home to 90 wine producers (where they crush and process the grapes), some of whom are also part of the 3000 vintners who grow their own grapes.

The soil of Sicily is so varied, said Antonio that it is said to “change from the width of one palm to another”—so the country can offer a great variety of wines. The climate is gentle for growing grapes—and makes it easy to grow organically. Summers are dry; in fact, May to September is generally completely dry, and since there is no water to irrigate with, winemakers instead reduce the quantity of grapes to conserve their resources. “Constant breezes help the grapes do their job and eliminate any concerns about mildew,” he said. “The island has the lowest-yield grapes and greatest amount of wine produced per hectare compared to any other location in Italy.”

Antonio and Alberto graciously showcased some of the DOC members’ wines. A few notables included Stemmari 2014 Grillo (distinctive lemony long-finish unoaked white), Planeta Rosé (fresh and fruity, perfect with almost any food), Baglio di Pianetto Ramione 2013 (blend of Nero D’Avola/Merlot with aromas of red berries followed by vanilla and licorice notes), and Donnafugata SurSur 2014 (100% Grillo with fruity and wild flower notes).

Antonio talked a little about Sicily’s multi-cultural history and the fact that Sicily has for centuries been a strategic location for armies on the move. Arabs dominated the area for 300 years. Next the Phoenicians, then the Romans, and then the barbarians, the Byzantines, the Normans, and the Germans. “The Greeks finally brought the concept of growing grapes to Sicily around 800 B.C.E.”

“Sicily is the highest producing area for wine in all of Italy,” he said. The DOC was formed in order to exert better control of the processes for growing and the quality of final products on the market, and the only DOC in Italy that is bigger is Prosecco DOC. A panel of tasters travels about the Sicilian countryside tasting wines in the facility and then tasting the same wines after they’re bottled and arrive in the shops and restaurants. The mission is to make sure the quality and flavor of each wine are consistent at each step with what originally went into the bottles. Anything labeled DOC undergoes this rigorous tasting and chemical analysis and must be certified.

The agriculture and artisanal production of grapes is in the blood of many winemakers. Each succeeding generation brings its own contributions of experience and expertise to the process. Antonio remembers going with his grandfather to the wine cellars when he was only three and a half years old. “I rode around on my little bike with an extra training wheel.” His family has been in the industry since 1851, and now the fifth generation is involved in all aspects of it – the business side, the law, the language, etc.

Antonio talked about how he, as a winemaker, tastes wines. “It might take seven hours to taste up to 300 wines,” he said. Starting with white wines, then old reds (in the barrel), they progress to new reds and then dessert wines. The tasters eat grissini (unsalted, crispy breadsticks) to help cleanse the palate. “After 100 to 150 tastes, it’s hard to tell the difference anymore,” he admitted. So they might taste from 9 am to 1 pm, then have lunch and continue tasting from 3 to 6:30 pm. “In the old days—say, 1975,” he said, “we might have had 35 people tasting a thousand bottles of wine, with five people washing bottles. Today, with modern machinery, three people can do 7000 bottles in an hour.” Staggering numbers, indeed. He said Italy is a constant source of innovation in winemaking machinery and that, in fact, France and Napa Valley often buy machines developed in Italy.

He went on to reveal an interesting trick of the trade. “All wines taste good with fennel,” according to Antonio. A common ingredient in Italian cooking, “that flavor makes even a bad wine taste better.” In fact, it is such a common ruse that people in the industry have made a verb of the word itself. Some give it to tasters because it clouds their ability to determine the real quality of the wine.

The Sicilia DOC wines are anxious to bring their goodness and complexity to the United States market. The consortium will exercise strict control and carefully record data for each Sicilia DOC wine via the Internet. For more information, watch for Sicilia DOC mentions on Facebook and Twitter and in advertorials in Wine Spectator and other American publications. They are intent on bringing the good news about Sicilian wines to the “passionate and demanding American public.”

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Bring your appetite and relax at Nando’s Peri-Peri Wabash

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A restaurant with its own special vibe opened this summer at 22 S. Wabash on Jewelers Row near Madison Ave: the fourth Chicago location of Nando’s Peri-Peri. It’s a unique, partly self-serve but not fast-food place that specializes in delicious flame-grilled chicken with many different variations on the restaurant’s proprietary Peri-Peri sauce. The chicken is super juicy and the sauces come in shades of spiciness suited to almost any particular taste.

This place is a hidden treasure trove of delicious food served in a warm, cozy atmosphere – and it’s a great place to come when you’re hungry. You’ll notice from our pictures that we were obviously hungry; we couldn’t remember to take a picture of each course before we dove in and started eating!

Nando hummus - too good to wait
Nando hummus – too good to wait

The starter hummus benefited greatly when we poured the contents of the little bottle of Peri-Peri sauce served on the side for that purpose. Woke up the flavor of the spread and gave a nice spicy tang to the whole dish. It was served with crisp and uniquely cut vegetables – carrot discs, unusually shaped fingers of cucumber, thinly sliced strips of pepper, and little triangles of rich-doughed pita bread. Very tasty and nicely presented.

Nando peas 'n' chicken
Nando peas ‘n’ chicken

We both decided to go for the dark meat chicken quarter with two sides ($9.95 with two sides, $7.95 for just the chicken). Side choices included garlic bread – a delicious Portuguese roll nicely grilled in garlic butter – creamy smashed red potatoes, Machu peas – fresh crushed with mint and chili – and Portuguese rice. Pick your sides, then stroll over to the self-serve station and sample as many cups as you like of your choice(s) of Peri-Peri sauces, which come in a variety of hotnesses and include mild, garlic, wild herb, medium and hot. It’s a self-serve place for the most part, but helpful servers make the rounds on a regular basis. Our server that night was particularly willing to help – he got us napkins, extra drinks, and desserts, each with two spoons for sharing. We definitely felt taken care of.

The chicken was exquisitely grilled after having been marinated in their original Peri-Peri sauce, cooked to perfection, served up super juicy and just enough crisp in the skin to enhance the flavor beautifully. So tasty we found ourselves gnawing on the bones to mine the last of the juicy goodness. Our mashed potatoes and Machu peas and garlic bread were most satisfying. The Portuguese rice was quite mild until we kicked it up with some Peri-Peri sauce that brought it to life.

Nando makes its own Sangria
Nando makes its own Sangria

The choices of wines were impressive – two selections from South Africa, a couple from Portugal, and several others, as well as a sangria of the day and their regular featured red sangria, both refreshing and full of fresh fruit. My companion, who’s dined with sangria in Spain and Portugal many times, felt the big leaf of fresh basil in the mango sangria-of-the-day was an inspired touch.

The desserts were unexpectedly out of the ordinary. This visit we decided to pass on the custard tarts, a regular feature at Nando’s, so we could try some of the other options. From the super-moist carrot cake to the super-rich chocolate spoon cake, each served with a dollop of whipped cream, and the bottomless dish of frozen vanilla yogurt, we tucked in with vigor and didn’t quit until we had almost finished the three.

The place was rocking with Spanish/Portuguese music throughout the meal. It was just loud enough to liven the atmosphere without interfering with conversation. We thought they ought to pipe the music outside to let people know what a fun and delicious experience is on offer inside. The decor is fresh and original, using lots of natural wood with some unique decorating touches. Bathrooms are clean and cheerful, and benefit greatly from having the music piped in there as well.

Any time you are anywhere near State and Madison and you’re hungry, you will be very well satisfied if you make the trip over to South Wabash to meet the Peri-Peri staff and sample the menu. Friendliness and helpfulness were definitely the keys to the service kingdom at Nando’s Peri-Peri the night we were there. Sad to say, the restaurant is very hard to see from the street. No signage extends out onto or across the sidewalk. Perhaps they’ll remedy that soon, but in any case, this spot is well worth the search.

And don’t forget they have three other locations in Chicago: Clybourn, Lakeview and West Loop.

Nando’s supplied samples to facilitate this review; the opinions expressed are 100% those of the writer.

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Chicago Fire soccer team mans the grills at Nando’s

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This Saturday November 21 Nando’s PERi-PERi is christening its new 22 S. Wabash location by donating its first day two days of proceeds to the Chicago Fire Foundation, which works to enhance the lives of disadvantaged youth in and around Chicago. And five Chicago Fire soccer players will be doing the cooking. Nando’s PERi-PERi is a South African-Portuguese restaurant known around the world for its spicy flame-grilled chicken. The Wabash spot makes its fourth Chicago location.
Oh, yeah. Good chicken.
Oh, yeah. Good chicken.

The marinated-for-24-hours then flame-grilled chicken is the star of the menu – from wings to quarters to whole birds and with a variety of sauces available – but the different combination plates and sides make a wide enough variety to satisfy just about any craving. How about this creative salad combo: Butternut squash and couscous salad ($8.25), made of oven-roasted butternut and red onion with olives, grilled corn, chili and couscous, served with dressing on a bed of leaves. You can practically taste the flavors just thinking about it.

And how about the desserts? From raspberry brulee/white chocolate cheesecake ($6.25) to a chocolate/peanut butter/red velvet cupcake ($3.25) and the Four-High carrot cake ($6.25) consisting of four rich, golden cake layers with walnuts, pineapple, and raisins and topped off with cream cheese icing, they are not kidding around. Oh, and they give the calories right on the website for every item on the menu. In case you’re wondering, the carrot cake clocks in at 1136 this-is-probably-all-you-can-eat-for-the-day calories.

Chicago Fire players scheduled to appear at Nando’s include defender Eric Gehrig, midfielders Chris Ritter, Michael Stephens and Matthew Watson, and Fire great and club ambassador Gonzalo Segares. Get your special chicken served up by these guys when you stop by Nando’s on Wabash this Saturday and Sunday.

WHO: Nando’s and Chicago Fire Soccer Team
WHAT: New Nando’s opens in the Loop, with Fire players taking over the grills. All sales donated to charity this weekend
WHERE: Nando’s, 22 S. Wabash Avenue
WHEN: Restaurant opens 11am; Players on site Saturday, Nov. 21 and Sunday, Nov. 22 from 11:30am to 1:30pm and 5:30pm to 7:30pm

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Jeff Mauro gives thumbs up to LeadBelly winner of RedEye Burger Battle 2015

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Food Network star Jeff Mauro (The Kitchen, Star Salvation, Sandwich King) took time out from his crazy-busy schedule recently to host the 3rd annual RedEye Battle of the Burger 2015 presented by Amstel Light. More than 500 guests enjoyed the beautiful summer evening on the patio of the Chicago History Museum where they sampled the between-the-bun, mainly-beef specialty offerings from nearly two dozen of the city’s well-known eateries and cast their votes for Chicago’s best burger. Winning burgers are at the end of this article–and man, they taste good with Amstel Light.

Jeff was kind enough to do a brief Q&A about being a Food Network star. Jeff originally wanted to be a comedian, but after years of cooking and working in delis and four years as a private chef in a big jeff mauro leadbellycorporation, he also knew he wanted to be on Food Network. So, on his third try at the contest, he finally got cast.

What’s your favorite story about how you got started?

“I was in NY for 11 weeks. My son was 2 years old. We just got done living in the basement with my in-laws. It was so stressful leaving, but I was pursuing this dream. When I came home from the call, I was in the top two and I knew I was going to make it. I went to my house—that I’d saved up for so long—and after thirteen years, my house, family, son. I was elated to be with my family again.” He went on to win the Food Network star competition.

How do they choose contestants for competitions on Food Network TV?

“The show’s producers hire a casting company and these folks do an incredibly thorough job of vetting contestants. First, you make and submit a video, then you wait for a casting call. Then you go and then wait for a call back, then you compete. They do background checks, psychological testing, incident testing, on-camera test, ask very personal questions, and so on. They want to be very sure that this person will make a good appearance on television in terms of behavior, attitude and strength of character. It’s a long process. But my wife just knew that last time that I’d make it. She told me, ‘This video is going to get you there. Your life is going to change forever.’ She was right.”

How did you become known as the “Sandwich King”?

“When we were in the midst of the competition and I’d been mentioning all the diners and delis I worked at, Bobby Flay said to me, ‘So, you’re gonna be the sandwich king, eh?’ And it stuck. That became my name henceforth. That had been my point of view for years as I went from butcher shop to sandwich catering company. I knew I was good at constructing those.” For handy hints on making a non-slip sandwich, visit Mauro’s Sandwich King web page.

What do you enjoy most—besides money!—about being a Food Network star?

“All the travel is hard, but it’s great that I can include my family and travel places and experience foods. You get treated a certain way in restaurants. It’s unique. I don’t take it for granted. We still live in the same house and same neighborhood. I love making television. I’ve been doing it four years now.”

What do you like most about Chicago as a foodie heaven?

“I’ve been in LA and NY. I’m in New York four to five times a month. I go to all the great restaurants everywhere, but I absolutely adore Chicago. It is a place where chefs can exercise their creative chops without the intense pressure that chefs in, say, New York have to face every moment when they’re paying tens of thousands of dollars a month in rent. Chicago allows chefs to experiment and feel comfortable with trying new things, without always worrying about being first or how high they are in the competition.”

What are some of your favorite restaurants in the Chicago area?

“I’m a neighborhood guy as opposed to downtown. I like, for example, Boka (Michelin star 2015) is one of my favorites right now. Boho (Bohemian House)—phenomenal schnitzel and housemade sausages. Jimmy’s Place in Forest Park for pizza, Vesuvio Bakery and sandwiches, Gibson’s. Hot dogs at Gene and Jude’s, in River Grove. Johnny’s Beef & Gyros.”

Jam Restaurant in Logan Square is owned by a Jeff Mauro, but that’s not the same guy.

“Yeah, it’s a different Jeff Mauro who owns Jam Restaurant. I actually had him appear as a guest on my Sandwich King show.”

What would you say to anyone who aspires to become a famous chef?

“Work in the kitchen at a restaurant for a summer. That’ll tell you whether you really want to cook and whether you can stand the life. Short order cook, work the line, whatever—for free most likely. Save yourself 30-40 grand for culinary school.”

Is there a book in your future?

“Maybe. Probably a memoir, though, not a cookbook. Anybody can get my recipes from TV. If I do write one, it’s more likely to be the story of my life.”

Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

“God bless America!”

Top 3 winning burgers

3rd Annual Redeye Battle of the Burger sponsored by Amstel Light

  1. Leadbelly (Portage Park and Gladstone Park): Old Time Religion Burger – Roasted tomato, goat cheese, arugula and truffle aioli (and I might add, try their fabulous housemade butter cookies).
  2. Beef & Barley, 3001 N. Ashland: The “Smang It” Burger – Chipotle mayo, Spanish chorizo, avocado, jalapeno, lettuce, tomato and pickle.
  3. Whisk, 2018 W. Chicago: House Burger – Chihuahua cheese, chipotle mayo, guacamole and tortilla strips.

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Spirits-infused recipes for cookouts and football parties

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BBQ chicken bacon bites

Nothing says party like food cooked on the grill – meat, chicken, vegetables, whatever. The smells alone make me want to invite people over. One way to put those meals over the top is to brush with spirits-infused sauces and toppings. And another way is to wash ‘em down with tasty cocktails made with matching spirits.

Below are a few rum-, whisky- and gin-infused food and drink ideas for your next family and/or friends gathering. These food recipes are so good you don’t even have to have an outdoor grill – your oven’ll work fine. You could even adapt them to cook in a big covered skillet if you don’t want to heat up the kitchen when your A/C is straining to keep up with blistering temps or soggy humidity (and yes, that can happen these days even in football season).

Thanks to the folks at Captain Morgan rums and Crown Royal whiskies, here are a few intensely flavored dishes and drinks to try for your next barbeque or football party.

BBQ Chicken Bacon Bites
Recipe and photo courtesy of Georgia Johnson, The Comfort of Cooking

  • Nonstick cooking spray2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes8 oz. (half pound) bacon, cut into thirds1/2 cup Spicy Sweet BBQ Sauce (recipe below)Toothpicks

Instructions: Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray lightly with cooking spray. Wrap each chicken piece with a small strip of bacon. Secure with a toothpick and place on the baking sheet. Brush with BBQ sauce. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven, brush bites with more BBQ sauce, and return to oven. Bake for 15 more minutes. Serve warm.

Spicy Sweet BBQ Sauce
1 1/2 cups brown sugar1/2 cup chili sauce1/2 cup Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce1/4 cup ketchup1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce2 garlic cloves, crushed1 teaspoon ground dry mustardGround black pepper, to taste

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over low heat. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, or until thickened as desired. Stir occasionally. Use immediately as you wish, or store in refrigerator until ready to use.

Play Action Spiced Rum Punch
1.5 oz. Captain Morgan® Original Spiced Rum2 oz. pomegranate juice1 oz. apple cider1 oz. fresh lime juice0.5 oz. simple syrup

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a punch glass. Add ice and stir well to blend. Garnish with a mixture of orange wheels, apple slices or pomegranate ice cubes.

Whisky recipes (Photo courtesy of hirejoejohnson)

Brats with “Maple-ized” Onions
2 large onions1 1/2 tablespoons butter1 tablespoon olive oil3 oz. Crown Royal® Maple Finished WhiskyPinch of SaltBuns

Instructions: Grill bratwursts over medium heat, turning them every three minutes until they turn golden brown or the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, melt butter and oil in skillet on medium-high heat. Thinly slice the onions and stir them in and add a pinch of salt frequently, until the onions begin to brown, about 5-10 minutes. Add Crown Royal® Maple Finished Whisky to the skillet and continue to cook onions, stirring occasionally, until well “maple-ized.” Simmer until there is very little moisture left in the pan. Place brats on buns and top with generous amount of onions.

Bull Rush cocktail
1 oz. Crown Royal Black® Whisky0.5 oz. Triple Sec Liqueur1 or 2 splashes grenadine3 oz. club soda

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a punch glass. Add ice and stir well to blend. Garnish with a mixture of orange wheels, apple slices or pomegranate ice cubes.

And not to be left out, Sapphire gin and Barking Irons, makers of the ultimate home mixologist’s bag of tools ($495), bring us a few other classic cocktail recipes:

Gin & Tonic Reimagined
1 ½ oz Bombay Sapphire East Gin3 oz Fevertree tonicLime wedge OR different garnish (lemongrass, juniper, coriander, cassia bark, etc)

Press lemongrass stem and lime wedge into base of old-fashioned glass. Fill with ice and build. Garnish with lime wedge, lemongrass stem.

Sapphire Peppered Peach Tea Collins
1 ½ oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin¾ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice½ oz. Simple Syrup1 ½ oz. Peach Iced TeaPinch of Black PepperClub Soda

Build with ice in a highball glass. Top with Club Soda. Garnish with peach slide and lemon twist

Bombay Negroni
1 part Campari1 part Bombay Sapphire1 part MARTINI Gran Lusso

Stir the ingredients over ice. Strain into a lowball glass with a large chunk of ice. Garnish with an orange slices.

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Trattoria 10 hosts Sardinian wine dinner

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Trattoria 10 sets an elegant table
Trattoria 10 sets an elegant table

Had a chance recently to learn a little about the island of Sardinia. Where’s that, you may ask? North of Sicily about 120 miles west from the edge of the boot. It’s a land where, so they say, people tend to live longer than people anywhere around them – many living to 100 and beyond. Credit goes to the Mediterranean diet, of course, but also to their specific wines, made with native Cannonau grapes (similar to Grenache but unique to Sardinia). These fruits are said to have three times higher levels of antioxidants and flavonoids that are known to “slow down aging in your cells” and – imagine! – “reduce stress in males.” What? Only guys?

Ladies, never fear. Wine of all types reduces our stress.

Tasted several Italian wines imported by Cantina Oliena (a group founded to promote the wines of Sardinia) and ate some scrumptious Sardinian-inspired dishes by Executive Chef John Caputo of the popular Itaian restaurant, Trattoria No. 10, located at 10 N. Dearborn. Walk in from the street and take either the stairs or the elevator down to the lower level. Despite lots of dark wood and heavy, embroidered, lacy-looking curtains shirred on rods on the windows separating the private dining area from the public spaces, the place has a light and comfortable feeling.

The Sardinian dinner menu included a light yet piquant salad of arugula and shaved fennel topped with Parmesan chips, dressed with a light hand and sprinkled with Bottarga di Muggine (a grated fish egg preparation that gave it a touch of salty tang). Excellent!

The wine that accompanied the salad was a standout – Istrale Vermentino Bianco 2012 (retails at about $16). This is a white wine worth searching out. Dry, but round and full and smooth in the mouth with lots of herbal notes – one of few wines that go well with green things like artichokes, asparagus and so on. Buon Gusto Market, importers of Sardinian goods, including cheeses, wines and olive oils, provided the wines and a number of the food items in Chef Caputo’s American take on Sardinian foods. They don’t sell direct to consumers but do have a page on their website listing all the Illinois restaurants where you can expect to find their products.

Next was a grilled octopus – marinated first, then grilled nice and brown and crispy. It was so well browned that it almost looked overdone, but the taste was marvelous and went perfectly with the little chunks of watermelon and pieces of heirloom tomatoes, all dressed in a light tarragon vinaigrette. The wine in this case was a dry, darker pink rosé called Jannas Rosé Cannonau DOC (no vintage). Nice pairing.

The main course was a seared lamb loin, cooked pink, and served with a small pool of rich, translucent brown reduction I couldn’t quite identify – delicious – and accompanied with a hunk of lamb-pecorino sausage. That same type of sausage had been cooked long hours in the tomato sauce that the side of pasta, rapini and sweet corn was served in. Oh, man, that tomato sauce was full of flavor and quite unique. I’d come back again to Trattoria No. 10 just for that sauce. The whole dish was most enjoyable. And it was served with two different red wines – one light and dry, and the other deeper and richer-flavored. The first was Lanaito Cannonau IGT 2011 (a blend with 20% Monica grapes) and the second, Nepente Cannonau (100% Cannonau) DOC 2011. I give them 3 stars and 4 stars respectively.

The dessert, ravioli filled with young Pecorino, was served with a scoop of Torrone Gelato (Torrone is a hard nougat made of honey, sugar, egg whites and toasted and chopped almonds and nuts). The whole dish was drizzled with Sardinian bitter sweet honey. Loved the gelato! The two different red dessert wines paired nicely.

I wouldn’t hesitate to come back to Trattoria No. 10 and sample from their regular menu. Clearly Chef Caputo has a passion for combining flavors and cooking to perfection that I’d like to experience more of.

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LM and Bistronomic Chef/owner to offer more French options

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Troquet River North (formerly LM Bistro)
Troquet River North (former LM Bistro)
Exciting news for Chicago fans of authentic French cuisine. LM Restaurant Group Owners Stephan Outrequin and Nicole Quaisser and Bistronomic’s Chef/Owner Martial Noguier recently announced a partnership. Chef Martial Noguier will serve as Managing Chef Partner and will oversee the culinary component of all LM Restaurant Group restaurants.

I asked LM co-owner Nicole Quaisser what the new partnership will mean to customers. She said they’re very excited about the partnership. That Martial, a long-time Chicago guy, and she and Stephan have known each other for a long time. “We are a French company,” she said, “and we love the idea of having a French partner.”

I told Nicole how much I loved the look and feel of the 111 W. Huron location when I visited LM Bistro recently. I heard they’d done a recent revamp of the space, so I asked her about it. Nicole said their original LM in Lincoln Square was a much smaller space with a very warm and welcoming ambiance. Because the current location has very high ceilings, they did a few things to cozy it up, but returning customers kept remarking they missed the warm and cozy feeling.

“Our new approach was to divide the space to create several smaller rooms and rearrange seating to break up individual areas,” said Nicole. “Plus we also revamped the lighting to make the space feel warmer.” A truly great job in my book. Bulletin: As of January 8, the 111 W. Huron location (formerly LM Bistro) has been christened Troquet River North. This is one of the first changes to come out of the partnership.

I asked Nicole about her background and experience. “My husband and I have built the LM group together,” she said, “and we both have extensive experience. We both worked in hotels – from housekeeping to dishwashing. We know how to do everything – and how important each position is.”

Nicole says she is more into the sales and PR side of building the business. “I make connections and focus on gaining repeat business. Stephan is more of a concepter – choosing things from France to do here. We complement each other,” she said.

LM and Bistronomic owners want to combine what Americans recognize as French with what is actually going on in France today. I asked if that related more to types of restaurants or to menu choices.

“There are two aspects,” said Nicole. “The American market has presumed French dining is always fine dining – fancy tablecloths, stuffy attitudes, etc.” But as the new partners all know, she said, the French aren’t always going out for fine dining. They also go to the bar and have cheese and so on. LM offers Troquet as a model of a French neighborhood bar, a place to go for a drink and a snack. Brasserie by LMis more a brewery or diner. Bistro as used in France is different from here. Bistro is still casual but presents more of the higher-end dining experience.

“All our restaurants are at different price points,” she said, “but they all offer attentive service and strict attention to detail.” With Martial coming on board, she said they’ll be doing more things that are going on in France, such as smaller, neighborhood places. Martial told them that the young folks in France tend to go to small places like Troquet – a different level, more affordable than higher-end French food in the market.

As to the sorts of dishes customers can expect to be seeing in the new LM restaurants, Nicole said Martial and the chefs are working an actual menus right now. “He wants to bring experimental, market-fresh, local produce, so different things may pop up on menu any time, changing all the time. All truly French. The brasserie has more traditional menu items. LM Bistro may have a few new items.” They will also focus on French catering. Check out the LM reception catering menu available for 10 or more guests. “We’ll be upscaling that a little bit,” she said.

Judging from past experience at LM Bistro and at Troquet, this promises to be a fun time for Chicago French food lovers.

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12 places to tend your New Year’s Day 2014 needs

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Whether you’re going out partying all night on New Year’s Eve or, like me, you’ll be in bed long before the ball drops, you may want to seek out gratifying no-cook food options for the next day. Here are 12 Chicago restaurants that have delicious food and drink specials to help you welcome in the new year. Enjoy!

AMERICAN JUNKIE CHICAGO, opens 11 am January 1
15 Illinois St. | Chicago, IL 60654 | 312.239.0995

Wake Up and Rally with Bowl Game Drink Specials
American Junkie invites Chicagoans to continue their New Year’s celebrations with $5 mimosas, $7 Fireball shots, $16 domestic beer buckets and $20 premium beer buckets. Guests can combine cocktails with upscale bar bites including $7 nachos, $1 sliders and .75 cent wings. The River North sports bar is the perfect spot to catch all of the New Year’s Day Bowl Game action including the Outback Bowl where the University of Iowa will take on Louisiana State University (kick off at 12 p.m.).
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BRASSERIE by LM, opens 6 am January 1
800 S. Michigan Avenue | Chicago, IL 60605 | 312.431.1788

New Year’s Day Brunch at Brasserie by LM
Brasserie by LM invites Chicagoans to enjoy their brunch menu. Brasserie’s brunch menu includes traditional favorites as well as new creations with entrées, pastries and classic brunch items like French Toast ($10), LM Benedict ($10), Crepes ($10), Savory Tart ($7) Brasserie Burger ($12) and more. Guests can also enjoy Brasserie’s Croque menu which includes Croque Monsieur ($9), Croque Vegetable ($9) and Croque Salmon ($11). For an additional $2, guests can add an egg on top of any Croque to create a Croque Madame. Brasserie Bloody Marys and Mimosas will be available for $7 each.

In addition, a bottomless Mimosa and Entrée special will be available for $25 per person. The full menu is available upon request. Photos available upon request.
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CHICAGO CUT STEAKHOUSE, 12 pm – 10 pm January 1
300 N. LaSalle St. | Chicago, IL 60654 | 312.329.1800

$20 Burger Special
Chicago Cut Steakhouse welcomes guests to indulge in their special New Year’s Day Burger Specials. Guests can select from three specialty burgers including:

  • The Eggsplosion Burger
    Prime ground beef with an egg cooked in the middle, pan-fried on an iron skillet, topped with American cheese, applewood bacon, grilled onions and jalapeno mayo on a toasted potato bun
  • Three Chili Pepper Burger
    Charred red fresno peppers, shipkas peppers & poblano peppers, topped with Chicago Cut’s famous guacamole and served on a Kings Hawaiian Bun smeared with Chipotle Mayo.
  • Tapenade Stuffed Burger
    Black and green olive tapenade stuffed in prime beef, layered with thinly sliced red onion, thinly sliced sweet gherkin pickles, baby romaine hearts, coarse grained mustard and mayo on a toasted Kaiser bun

In addition, the Chicago Cut Prime Burger, $14, will also be available. All burgers are served on a buttery brioche bun, unless otherwise noted, with fresh, homemade fries and a side of coleslaw.
A perfect complement to any burger, the restaurant will offer $7 Elliott Ness Christmas Ale.
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CHICAGO q, opens 11 am January 1
1160 N. Dearborn St. | Chicago, IL 60610 | 312.642.1160

Chicago q will be open for brunch on New Year’s Day. Menu items, created by Chef/Partner Lee Ann Whippen, will satisfy brunch-goers’ “sweet tooth” and “meat tooth” by featuring house-made confections and house-smoked meats. Brunch dishes three different kinds of benedict: Smoked Chicken on honey butter cornbread, Kobe Brisket on Cheddar-Chive Biscuits with a Whole Grain Mustard Hollandaise, and Southern with Fried Green Tomatoes, Pulled Pork and a Cajun Hollandaise, Sweet Potato Hash and Eggs, Sweet Potato and Signature Carrot Cake Pancakes and more.

As a special, the restaurant will serve Black Eyed Peas. In the Southern United States, these peas are eaten on New Year’s Day as good luck treat thought to bring prosperity for the year.
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CLARK STREET DOG AND BAR, opens 9 am January 1
3040 N. Clark St. | Chicago, IL 60657 | 773.281.6690

Start your new year Chicago style with Clark Street Dog and Bar’s always fresh and never frozen menu including favorites like the Signature Clark Street Dog, Italian Beef and the newly available Vienna Bistro Chili. The Lakeview staple will open at 11 am, just in time for kickoff of the first college football bowl games in 2014. Grab a Goose Island draft beer, available for $3.50, or a signature pickle-back shot, available for $5, while enjoying the games with friends.
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GO ROMA, all locations open 12-8 pm January 1
848 N. State Street | Chicago, IL 60610 | 312. 252. 9946 | www.goroma.net
Other Locations in Bolingbrook, Lincolnshire, Northbrook and Deer Park.
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THE GRID, opens 11:30, Lounge opens at 7 pm on January 1
351 W. Hubbard St | Chicago, IL 60654 | 312.321.1351

Start 2014 off on the right foot at The Grid with College Football and some of Chef Eric Romano’s delicious brunch offerings. The Grid will treat recovering party goers to their Build Your Own Mimosa Bar with 8 different mixers as well as their Build Your Own Bloody Mary Bar. Featured brunch items include: Eggs in Purgatory with poached eggs in diablo tomato, chupacabra sausage and goat cheese;
Eggs Florentine with spinach, hollandaise, stuffed peppers served on an English muffin and the Signature Smoothie with berries, banana, Greek yogurt, kale, B12, protein powder and pedialyte.
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LM BISTRO, opens 6 am January 1
111 W Huron St | Chicago, IL 60654 | 312.202.9900

Guests are invited to celebrate the New Year at LM Bistro with their delicious brunch. Brunch specials include savory favorites in their two special brunch sections: a cheval, a selection of fork-and-knife, breadless sandwiches, and les tartines, open faced sandwiches.
A Cheval includes:
· Traditional, $13, with caramelized onion, gruyere and a sunny side up egg
· Vegeterien, $10, with portabella mushroom, brie and truffle scrambled eggs
· Poisson, $11, with whitefish, tartar sauce and poached egg.
Les Tartines include:
· Benedict 111, $13, with cured ham, poached eggs and cider béarnaise
· Tomate, $9, with heirloom tomato, olive oil, garlic
Steak and Eggs, $14, with roquette, horseradish and fried eggs

In addition, there are a variety of plates to satisfy sweet tooths like as like Buttermilk Pancakes with blueberry jam, maple syrup and homemade butter ($10), Brioche French Toast with almonds, orange marmalade and fromage blanc ($11), Crepes and more.

A bottomless mimosa and entrée special will be available for $25 per person.
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THE LOCAL CHICAGO, Opens 6:30 am January 1
198 E Delaware Place | Chicago, IL 60611 | 312.280.8887

New Year’s Day Burger Party at The Local Chicago
$20 Burger and Fries Special

The Local Chicago welcomes guests to indulge in their special New Year’s Day Burger Menu on New Year’s Day. Guests can select from five specialty burgers including:

  • The Eggsplosion Burger
    Prime ground beef with an egg cooked in the middle, pan-fried on an iron skillet, topped with American cheese, applewood bacon, grilled onions and jalapeno mayo on a toasted potato bun
  • Three Chili Pepper Burger
    Charred red fresno peppers, shipkas peppers & poblano peppers, topped with Chicago Cut’s famous guacamole and served on a Kings Hawaiian Bun smeared with Chipotle Mayo.
  • Tapenade Stuffed Burger
    Black and green olive tapenade stuffed in prime beef, layered with thinly sliced red onion, thinly sliced sweet gherkin pickles, baby romaine hearts, coarse grained mustard and mayo on a toasted Kaiser bun

In addition, The Local Chicago’s regular burgers, The Ahi Tuna Burger, $20, with Pickled Daikon, Kimchi and Sesame-Wasabi Aioli, the TLC Burger, $14, with a USDA Prime Patty and Aged Cheddar, and The Mushroom and Gruyere Burger, $16, with a Porcini Crusted Steak Burger, Marinated Portobello Cap and Mushroom Mayo, will also be available. All burgers are served on a buttery brioche bun, unless otherwise noted, with fresh, homemade fries and a side of coleslaw.

A perfect complement to any burger, the restaurant will offer The Local Chicago Beer created by Two Brothers Brewery for $7.
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NOUVEAU TAVERN, opens 11 am January 1
358 W Ontario | Chicago, IL 60654 | 312.915.4100

Begin the New Year at Nouveau Tavern. On Wednesday, January 1, Nouveau Tavern will open early at 11:00 a.m. for the Nouveau Hangover Brunch. Guests can cheer on their favorite football team while enjoying a free Bloody Mary with the purchase of an entree from the brunch menu.
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PORKCHOP, opens 11:30 January 1
941 W Randolph St. | Chicago, IL 60607 | 312.733.9333

Special New Year’s Day Slider Bloody Mary and Bloody Mary Flights
Porkchop invites Chicagoans to start the New Year out right (and recover from last night’s festivities) by indulging in an epic Pork Slider Bloody Mary (Bloody Mary topped with a pork slider, rib and slice of bacon, drizzled with BBQ sauce). The meal of a cocktail is in honor of National Bloody Mary day. Those looking for a lighter variety can try a Bloody Mary flight featuring sample sizes of the “Bakon” Bloody Mary, Jalapeno Bloody Mary and Pickle Bloody Mary.

Customers looking for recovery can find reprieve in the V8, a Bloody Mary made with Chopin potato vodka garnished with vegetables; $9. Pair that with some good old comfort food including The Fat Elvis (bacon-studded Belgian waffle served with sliced bananas and peanut butter maple syrup; $12), Chicken and Waffles (southern fried chicken served on top of a Belgian waffle with ancho chile infused maple syrup; $12) or their Pulled Pork topped with a Fried Egg served on a Fried Mac & Cheese Bun. The resolutions can wait until Thursday.
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WEATHER MARK TAVERN, opens 11:30 am January 1
1503 South Michigan Avenue | Chicago, IL 60605 | 312.588.0230 |

Weather Mark Tavern invites Chicagoans to recover (or continue the New Year festivities) with a delicious bottomless mimosa brunch (bottomless mimosas and any brunch entree for only $13.95). Guest can top off their champagne cocktail with peach, cranberry or orange juice. Bloody Mary’s and Screwdrivers are also available for $5 each.

Cocktails can be paired with featured brunch dishes including Steak and Eggs; $9.50, Buttermilk Pancakes or French Toast; $7.95, Huevoes Rancheros; $7.95 and made to order skillets; $9.95. More unique options include the Caprese Eggs Benedict; $8.95, Weather MarCristo (sausage patty inside two Belgian waffles, syrup battered and fried; $9.95) and The First Mate’s Burrito (scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, house potatoes and sausage wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla and covered with chipotle cheese sauce; $11.95).
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Review – Little Italy, DaVanti Enoteca

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Davanti Enoteca on a sunny afternoon
Davanti Enoteca on a sunny afternoon

I grew up in Chicago but left here before I turned 21. Boo-hoo. Except for a few places downtown and a rare visit to a couple of the hot Rush Street clubs when I was underage (yes, it was a lot easier for not-yet-legal kids to get in to bars and clubs back then), I didn’t get much chance to enjoy Chicago as a grownup. Which is what makes it so much fun to do so now!

It was hot as hell when my daughter and I took off for Chicago’s Little Italy section for lunch last week. She’d attended college here in Chicago and had been a frequent visitor in the Little Italy section of town, so she suggested we try a place there. Our destination DaVanti Enoteca at1359 W. Taylor Road at Loomis St. And oh, yeah, and it was a taste of Italy for sure.

Nice ambiance—light shining in the high windows onto oak panel tables with big red numbers painted on them. Track spotlights highlighting the same oak panels in wine racks lining the walls. Big clear glass lanterns scattered around, some reflecting extra light via outsized wall mirrors.

The menu was unusual and included some Italian words we couldn’t decipher, so we figured we’d ask the server Martha for ideas. We’d already noticed and thought how reasonable most of the prices seemed when she advised that the plates are all tapas-sized smaller servings. We appreciated knowing that ahead of time, and then we did, in fact, end up ordering from just the items she pointed out.

English: Olives in olive oil.
English: Olives in olive oil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Started out with a tasty room-temperature salad of roasted fresh corn with arugula and walnuts, dressed with a drift of goat-cheese-rich dressing. Mmmm. Next we split a plate of cold oil-dressed tuna salad sparked with red onion bits and served on some marvelous Italian toast. The bread was perfectly grilled in olive oil, the crust crunchy but not too hard. The tuna tasty, though not outstanding. And the finale was a buttery nest of linguine noodles that had absorbed a rich transparent brown sauce along with some pasta water and was flecked with small bites of crab and bits of sea urchin. Very nice.

Martha helped us with our wine choice as well—the name itself a mouthful, Alto Adige Terlano Terliner—and we were delighted. Just enough crispness and body in a substantial white wine. A perfect choice for both the food and the atmosphere—and for the heat.

As we left the restaurant we thought to cross Taylor Road and check out the menu of the competitor place Francesca’s. Looked good, the ambiance a bit more formal, the prices higher. But then again, they probably don’t serve tapas style.

Then something across the other street caught our eye: a freestanding sidewalk sign covered in—I’m not making this up—big yellow feathers. When we first crossed we found a delightful little pet specialties shop called Tails on Taylor, full of unusual toys, specialty food and treats/surprises for cats, dogs and so on. Then we had to go look at Zia 925, the home of the yellow-feathers sign, and were rewarded with a fancy/funky atmosphere full of an eclectic mix of merchandise—jewelry, hair ornaments, hats, scarves and more—at quite reasonable prices. I walked out with a pair of unique dangling, gold-painted earrings but could have spent a lot more if the budget were bigger.

I wouldn’t hesitate to visit this little corner of Little Italy again. Definitely recommend DaVanti for other baby boomers looking for a unique Italian food experience in an enjoyable atmosphere. Read more at DaVanti Enoteca. And oh, my, how I love experiencing Chicago as a grownup!

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How to tell a good mussel from a bad one

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Is there a way to tell a good mussel from a bad one without tasting it? I haven’t found a reliable one yet – except the sense of smell.

Mussels at Trouville fish market
Mussels at Trouville fish market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I once decided to try a restaurant in the just-getting-trendy neighborhood known as Tremont in Cleveland, where I owned a rental property at the time and dreamed I might one day retire. The community charmed me because it was the only place in Cleveland–my home for 33 years – that reminded me of Chicago. A bar or restaurant or pizza/takeout place on virtually every corner of its delightfully walkable streets. I didn’t imagine at the time that I would joyfully end up back in my beloved home town.

Anyway, there was a restaurant a block down from my property that I’d heard good things about. So I went in one night and was thrilled to see they had mussels on the menu. Now I like mine in a simple wine broth with garlic and lots of butter and good bread. I was hungry, so I was eager for them to arrive. When they finally did, an overwhelming smell greeted me before the plate even hit the table – it was awful.

I pointed this out to the waitress and she actually tried to tell me I was mistaken. That’s how mussels are supposed to smell, she insisted. Hey, have you ever smelled a bad mussel? There’s a rotten odor about them. Sometimes the smell isn’t immediately noticeable and if you bite into one like that, you’ll immediately spit it out. It’s unmistakeably not something you want to eat. And they don’t have to look bad at all to have this smell.

If the first time I’d ever eaten mussels they tasted like that, I’d never have ordered them again, no matter how much people assured me. The waitress finally agreed haughtily to take them back. After that appalling customer service, I was seriously disinclined to take her up on her reluctant offer to substitute another dish.

So it’s time for mussels to be in season. And some Chicago restaurants are making special deals on these tasty little seafood treats served in their black shiny shells. Go out and enjoy yourself at one of these – and don’t take any guff if you get a bad one.

And I’d love to hear if you run into one that meets their marketing claim to include “the best mussel dishes in town.”

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