May 7, 2010: Our first stop in the windy city was Cafe Spiaggia, an Italian restaurant located at 980 North Michigan Avenue. Cafe Spiaggia is a more casual version of their upper scale restaurant next door, Spiaggia - the only 4 star Italian restaurant in Chicago and where in 2008, the Obamas spent their anniversary. Tony Mantuano, the executive chef at Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia, is a contestant on Season's 2 Top Chef Masters that premiered in April 2010.
All planes from DC to Chicago were delayed so Amy and I were late for our 8:45 pm reservation. Maria, another friend of ours, had flown to Chicago earlier in the day and arrived at the restaurant early. She let the hostess know we were going to be late and the restaurant staff was very accommodating with pushing our reservation back until we arrived. We literally came from the airport to the restaurant with no time beforehand to freshen up at the hotel. The Cafe's website says casual dress is permitted; however, I felt slightly underdressed in jeans.
First, I must say the service was truly incredible. Rick, our waiter (see picture below), attended to our every need. He picked up very quickly on the fact that we were knowledgeable about food and wine. He is a full time law student and normally only works Saturdays, but had picked up an extra Friday shift. This worked out perfectly for us and we were lucky to have had him as our server. Rick gave us great wine and food recommendations. He was also very kind to give us many other restaurant suggestions to try during our stay in Chicago.
We decided to do a tapas style event and order several things on the menu to share between the three of us. We started with the crudo, an Ahi tuna tartar with olives, capers, and rice beans. The tuna was very fresh; the olives and capers added a depth of flavor to the dish; and the rice beans were a very interesting addition. We felt this dish was very good but could have been slightly more flavorful - Amy suggested that a dash of lemon juice might brighten up the flavor a bit.
The sarde, the house cured sardines on crostini with salsa verde and shaved fennel, was one of our favorites of the evening. I almost wish I had ordered my own because after I tasted it, I didn't want to share. The sarde had the perfect mixture of salt and olive oil and the salsa verde was a perfect touch to the dish. Sardines, by the way, are the best source of coenzyme Q10.
Next up was the primi piatti - the pasta. We ordered two pastas, the perciatelle and the handcrafted gnocchi. The perciatelle, a thin hollow pasta with La Quercia guanciale, onions, garlic, basil, and Calabrian peppers, was "OMG" awesome. The pasta was cooked perfectly "al dente." The Calabrian peppers, a spicy little red pepper, added a perfect "kick" to the dish.
Rick convinced us to order the hand crafted potato gnocchi with wild boar ragu and Parmigiana Reggiano. He said they were the most tender potato gnocchi he's ever had. The gnocchi were very good and tender; however, they were not the most tender gnocchi Amy and I have ever had. Rick obviously has never been to Palena in Washington, DC which has the most tender, melt-in-your mouth gnocchi.
For our secondi, We ordered the Trota (another one of Rick's recommendations) - wood roasted golden trout with artichoke hearts, carmelized shallots, and new potatoes. The dish was supposed to come with Tuscan beans but Amy requested that they leave them out. The chef was happy to accommodate her request. The trout was very good; however, it was difficult to eat one bite which encompassed all the elements of the dish. The dish was very beautifully presented. The picture below doesn't do the dish's beauty justice.
The service was truly phenomenal. My only criticism is that the two pastas (i primi piatti) and the trota (il secondo) were brought to our table at the same time. I would have preferred that the trota be served after the pasta.
For dessert we ordered the bomboloni - Italian style doughnuts with grappa di Moscato zabaglione. The bomboloni were very delicious; however, the chocolate sauce was slightly overpowering for the sugar-coated doughnuts.
Compliments of the restaurant, Rick brought us a trio of gelati and sorbetti - red raspberry and pistachio gelati and the pineapple basil sorbet. The gelato and sorbet were out of this world delicious. The pineapple basil sorbet was the overall favorite of the table. Maria thought it tasted like a spa.
Finally, for the wine we had the Paolo Scavino Rosso Vino da Tavola. This wine was a deep, ruby-red color with hints of currant, cherry, mocha, pepper, and smoke. It had good acidity, easy on the tannins and a long finish. We also had the 2007 Barberi d'Asti Tre Vigne. This wine had red cherry fruit up front, good acidity, with smooth tannins.
Final Note: Cafe Spiaggia is a definite must if you are ever in Chicago. I hope to one day try the more upscale restaurant, Spiaggia.