Since moving to Chicago, I’ve spent the last 12 months discovering our new city. Thankfully, the food and dining scene here is so rich that I’ve only barely scratched the surface. Nothing could make me happier than the prospect of many more food discoveries in the years to come. Last month, I joined the Bertolli PR team and a handful of food bloggers on a culinary adventure throughout Chicago, tasting authentic Italian ingredients in a variety of neighborhoods. It was, quite simply, a foodgasmic day, one I hope to repeat as often as I can.
Everything would have tasted amazing if I’d been alone, but being in the company of people who love food as much as I do made everything taste even better:
- Evelyn from He Sipped/She Sipped,
- Tracey from Veggies, Cakes and Cocktails,
- Joelen from What’s Cookin’ Chicago,
- Courtney from Coco Cooks,
- Sarah from Rhymes with Spoon,
- and a Proud Italian Cook blog.
Moaning as you eat sounds so much better when it’s done as a chorus.
I expected to spend the day in Little Italy, gorging myself on cannolis in restaurants with checkered tablecloths, but the tour steered clear of the typical touristy Italian restaurants. Instead the focus was to taste high quality authentic Italian ingredients available around town.
We began the day with cappucino, pastries, and gelato at L’Appetito (875 N. Michigan Avenue, 312-337-0691), an unassuming coffee shop near the American Girl Store on Michigan Avenue. I would never have given it a second look, or imagined that it had been in existence for close to twenty years, with a strong commitment to excellent coffee and pastries.
Their barristas were trained by a special team from Illy in Italy, people so serious about their espresso brewing that they call it an art. The cappucinos were excellent, but the most incredible part of the meal was when a shot of espresso poured over creamy vanilla gelato to make affogato. I may be suggesting a trip to the American Girl Store to my girls soon just to get to taste it again.
The next stop was Pastoral Cheese shop (131 N. Clinton, 312-454-2200) at the French Market for a tasting of Italian cheeses from gorgonzola dulce to nutty parmegiano reggiano. The French Market as a whole is fairly underwhelming, but the selection and knowledge of the staff at Pastoral was impressive.
Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar
After our cheese feast, we headed to the most wonderful place: Old Town Oil, a shop filled with dozens of different olive oils and balsamic vinegars from around the world. It’s amazing all the different flavors plain olive oil can have. Spanish ones tend to be fruity and California ones have a hint of pepper. The Italian ones we sampled were luscious and rich, filled with grassy overtones. Old Town Oil also carries plenty of flavored oils, infused with basil, lemon, and lime to name a few.
The balsamic vinegar selection was equally stellar. The 15-year aged balsamic was sweet enough to sip like a delicious dessert wine and the fruit infused balsamics would make the most exotic salad dressings. I only wish the store offered their oils and vinegars in smaller sized bottles instead of just the large liter size. I would have really gone crazy buying many more than the two I limited myself to: lemon olive oil and strawberrry balsamic.
Right next door to Old Town Oil is the most wonderful spice shop called the Spice House. Once affiliated with Penzey’s Spices, the store now stands on its own, offering its own unique mixes and sourcing high quality spices from around the world. It was a bit like walking into a rare book store, spices were stacked from floor to ceiling, and delicious smells teased our noses from all around. I broke down and bought this deep red tomato powder which I used to flavor and color my ancho chili cheese souffle.
Finally, we finished our day of feasting with a specially crafted dinner at Coco Pazzo, composed of dishes showcasing fresh, springtime ingredients. I rolled away from the table, deep in a food coma, satiated to my very core.
I hope this list of great destinations in Chicago inspires you to create your own day of tasting. You’ll not only find amazing ingredients to stock your kitchen, but you’ll dazzle your palate with tastes you won’t forget anytime soon.