Touring Chicago One Bite at a Time - Day 4: Cafe Spiaggia
Day 4: Café Spiaggia
Saturday was rather cold for late August, so we decided to warm up with some pasta at Café Spiaggia, the smaller and considerably more affordable sibling restaurant to the highly touted Spiaggia. After arriving for our 11:30 reservations, we were promptly seated at a cozy table next to a window overlooking the streets below. Now, when I use cozy in this instance, I am using it as somewhat as a euphemism. Both my Dad and I are tall individuals, but even if we weren’t, I think the table would have been uncomfortably small. By being petite and intimate the table had that distinctive café feel, but it achieved this at the cost of very little table space and cramped legs.
We were then served the breadbasket with Spiaggia brand olive oil. The basket contained two types: A normal Italian white bread and much more flavorful Parmigiano-Reggiano crisps. The crisps were like an extremely flat piece of crisped bread (almost akin to just the crust of fresh baked bread) dotted with tangy Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The olive oil picked up the slack of the white bread, as it imparted a smooth, rich, fruity flavor that even had the deep aroma a good olive oil should have.
Soon after placing our orders, our appetizers arrived. Though I was considering the beet and ricotta salad, I made a last second decision to try the Sarde – House cured sardines on crostini with salsa verde and shaved fennel ($12). To my knowledge, I have never had sardines before, but I’m sure that will change in the future. Two crisp crostini were topped with fresh tasting sardines. I was expecting these sardines to be immensely salty, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well the fish flavor shown through. Furthermore, the texture was flaky and smooth, and reminded me of a more creamy cod. My only complaint of the dish was in the salsa verde. While the parsley and garlic were distinguishable, I felt the sauce suffered from being too oily. The sauce wasn’t helped by the liberal drizzle of olive oil over the fish, either. Everything tasted fine, but as time elapsed, the bread became soggy and everything turned into one gloppy bite. My Dad ordered the Mercato – A soup with a Parmigiano-Reggiano broth and Nichols Farm summer greens, fava beans, and cherry tomatoes ($8). I only had a bite of the soup, and I was surprised by the intensity of the Parmigiano-Reggiano flavor in the broth. Though I can’t comment more on the dish, my Dad enjoyed the lightness of it and said he would get it again.
After our starters were cleared, our pastas followed soon after. Everything I had read about Café Spiaggia noted how one of their best dishes was their hand crafted potato gnocchi with wild boar ragu and Parmigiano Reggiano ($18), so I had my mind made up before I looked at the menu. The moment the dish arrived I was impressed by the amount of food on the plate. As I dug through the dish I kept finding more and more meaty chunks of boar surrounded by many gnocchi. Taking in the rich tomato aroma of the ragu, I could tell this was a hearty dish. First, I took a bite of the gnocchi by itself. Light and fluffy, the gnocchi literally melted in my mouth. What’s more, the gnocchi absorbed the ragu flavor – my favorite part of the entire dish. The ragu had only a slight tomato flavor, but just enough to have a sweetness to counterbalance the bold flavors of what I suspect to be red wine and beef stock (boar stock?). The boar itself was tender and juicy despite it’s lean qualities. For me, though, what made the dish was the ragu. My Dad ordered the special pasta for the day, which was tagliatelle pasta with fresh peas and pancetta in a light cream sauce. Again, I only had a taste, but this dish was much lighter and more summery than my own.
Looking at the dessert menu, really only one thing caught my eye: Their “Panini,” which consisted of 3 chocolate cookie sandwiches filled with red raspberry, mint, and chocolate gelato ($9). The dessert arrived with all three mini ice cream sandwiches placed on their sides with chocolate and raspberry sauces dotting the plate. The cookies were the perfect texture with a crisp outside, but not too crisp that the gelato just shot out the back end. The cookies easily gave way to the creamy gelato, and though all were intensely flavored, my favorite would be the red raspberry because of its pairing so well with the chocolate cookie. All in all, a great ending to one of our “lighter” meals on the trip. I would highly recommend Café Spiaggia to anyone looking for relatively affordable and well-prepared Italian food. And though I have never been to the regular Spiaggia, I can say that I really have no interest in going anytime soon with food this good only a door down the hall.
My husband shares that sentiment with you. Based on your other posts, however, and especially your recent one about Alinea (I am trying to break down hubby's prejudices about what he calls "sci-fi- food" so we can go there), you should try Spiaggia at least once. I love Cafe Spiaggia, but the main restaurant is really a different animal. We've been there half a dozen times or so, and each time it has been incredible. I know there are lots of CHs who don't feel the same way, but you sound like someone who should try it. (Tables are a lot more comfortable, too!)
Yeah, if given the chance, I definitely would like to give it a try. But to me, there are a lot more places I'd like to try in Chicago before Spiaggia (L20, Tru, Trotter's - just to name a few). I'm sure the food is excellent, and I don't doubt that in due time I'll give it a try :).
And concerning your hubby's comments on Alinea, just tell him its not "sci-fi-food" (I'd call Moto that, however), its extremely well prepared and delicious food done in a way that has never been done before. People once thought that whole "internet" thing would never take off either :P