Food Adventures

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Mano (review)

A Mano
335 N Dearborn
Chicago, IL 60601

The menu at A Mano, the Italian trattoria owned by the folks who own BIN36, is quite extensive and versatile. It ranges from antipasti such as grilled baby octopus and marinated wild mushrooms, to a selection of salumi (cured meats), raw fish, and wood-burning oven pizza to first courses (including ribolitta, salads, and cotechino sausage), pasta and second courses (including both meat and fish). There is also a selection of side dishes and, most importantly, a gelato and sorbetto bar.

The restaurant, located in a basement space right underneath BIN36, also features an excellent selection of wines, possibly the most extensive selection of Italian wines of any restaurant in Chicago. And the wine was also the best part of an otherwise average dinner. Both the Amarone and the Valpolicella Ripasso we tried were excellent: rich and complex. The 5-page wine list contains something for every taste and will not disappoint.

Another memorable thing about the dinner was the wild boar, shredded and cooked in its own juices with sweet raisins. It was flavorful without being heavy and the fact that it wasn’t surrounded by a sauce made it stand out and make an impression.

The pasta (pappardelle) the wild boar was served over is a different story. It was somewhat leathery and didn’t combine well with the wild boar. The other pasta we tried, the gnocchetti with sweet butter and parmigiano, was equally unimpressive. The gnoccheti were somewhat slippery and didn’t have any flavor. The most flavorful ingredient on the plate, the shavings of parmigiano, was in short supply, which made the dish as whole quite devoid of flavor.

The pizza is good, but not great. The dough is a little too thick for my taste and the flavors of the pizza we had (Prosciutto di Parma with arugula and mozzarella) were unremarkable. The prosciutto, which should have been the star of the show, was overpowered by the cheese and could have been mistaken for any ham. For my taste, Spacca Napoli and even Frasca have much better pizza.

The meal was somewhat redeemed by the finish, a combination of three sorbetti: lemon, cranberry-apple and blood orange. The lemon was very lemony (even too lemony), but mixed with the blood orange, it yielded the perfect combination of sweetness and refreshing tartness. The cranberry-apple sorbetto was surprising, with a somewhat less even texture than the other two, and the prefect balance of the two fruits.

Overall, the experience was not inspiring, but I would go back for the rotisserie whole lamb (special on Thursdays), the whole roasted fish of the day, and more sorbetto. And, of course, the wine!

Tip: try to go early as the noise level is pretty high later in the evening.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Baccalà (salted cod)

Salted cod (baccalà in Italian) is one of those things people either love or hate. I had heard very few positive things about it; most people ate it around Christmas as kids (and some still do) and would rather not discuss the experience. Well, I have to disagree with them and put myself in the category of those who love it.

Until last July, I had not tried salted cod. Since it is one of the typical Italian ingredients (particularly popular in and around Venice), we studied it in the Tradition of Italian Food II course. Related to salted cod (baccalà) is stockfish. Baccalà is made from cod that has been cleaned on the boats right after it’s caught and then submerged in barrels of salt so it can be preserved for a long time. Stockfish, on the other hand, is dried on wooden grills at low temperatures (about 0 degrees Celsius or 32F), exposed to cold air and the occasional winter sun in Northern climates. As a result, stockfish (dried cod) is a tougher and tastes quite different when cooked.

I prefer baccalà: it is softer and juicier, with none of the texture of jerky. There are, of course, many ways to prepare baccalà and, while I liked all three that we tried in class, my favorite (perhaps because it was the most unusual one) is baccalà all vicentina. Baccalà alla vicentina (from the town of Vicenza in the province of Veneto) is cooked in milk. When I first learned this, I thought that maybe the people who hate baccalà had a good reason for doing so. The recipe calls for baccalà sandwiches, stuffed with parsley, garlic and parmiggiano. You sauté some red onions, add the baccalà sandwiches and, after browning them on both sides, add milk to cover them and simmer for about an hour. Easy enough! But baccalà and milk?!? Well, my first bite of baccalà alla vicentina convinced me to count myself amongst those who really like baccalà.

So, for my first baccalà-cooking experience at home, I decided to go with baccalà alla vicentina. It seemed like the perfect comfort food for a freezing day in Chicago: the milk becomes creamy and infused with the aromas of garlic and parmiggiano.

Since baccalà is very salty, before cooking it, you need to soak it in water for anywhere between 24 and 48 hours (depending on how salty it is), changing the water several times. In a pinch, you can leave the fish under running water for several hours; this does the trick. I put the fish in water in the fridge about 24 hours before I was going to cook it. I changed the water 5 times in the course of 24 hours. It was perfect!

After sautéing the baccalà, onions, garlic, and parsley in a little bit of olive oil, I added the milk (about 2 cups for .75 lb of fish) and simmered everything for an hour. Then, I sprinkled some parmiggiano and a little bit of ground nutmeg and put the baccalà in the oven so the cheese would melt.

The traditional way of serving the dish is on squares of fried polenta.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Olio nuovo

It’s January and the days are short, cold and often gloomy. The spring is far away and the memories of sunny places and meals full of sunshine seem unreal. There aren’t too many green things that taste natural, but one never fails to put a smile on my face and remind me of sunny days in Italy, great food, and beautiful vistas—olio nuovo. For those of you who have not heard me gush about olio nuovo and have not had the pleasure to come over and share some, here is a brief explanation of what it is:
Olio nuovo (literally ‘new oil’) is the (extra virgin) olive oil just pressed from the 2007 olive harvest. The olive harvest happens in November or early December (depending on the region and weather) and the olives are almost immediately pressed into olive oil. The fresh oil (which is often not filtered) is strong, pungent and greener than any extra virgin olive oil I have ever seen. Because it is unfiltered, it contains some solids, which are partly responsible for the vibrant green color and the cloudy appearance that give the oil its charm. It is by far the tastiest extra virgin olive oil you will ever taste.

For the past two years, I have ordered my olio nuovo from Casa de Case (, a SF company that imports olio nuovo directly from Frantoio Olivestri in Umbria. The arrival of the 5-liter can is always a much-anticipated and joyous event. I immediately contact my friends who appreciate the oil and the list of visitors grows. It’s hard to resist this green nectar that tastes like nothing you’ve had before and cannot be compared even to the best of extra virgin olive oils that are not freshly pressed. It’s strong, pungent, peppery, and complex. For me, it brings back memories of green Tuscany (the oil is technically form Umbria, but the property is very close to the Tuscan border and the oil has some of the features of Tuscan olive oils), vineyards and olive groves and tasty dish after tasty dish.

Because the oil contains solids, it is less stable than regular oil and is best consumed quickly, which is not an issue for me. I enjoy it at least once (and often twice) a day, with some crusty Italian bread and good wine.

Nothing makes winter meals tastier and more cheery than olio nuovo and daydreams of the next trip to Italy.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008


Today is a very special day—the first day of 2008 that Sensational Bites, my favorite Chicago bakery, is open. They are always closed the first week of the year (something about the employees and the owner taking vacation) and I have spent the past week trying not to think of the luscious custard in the Boston cream pie cupcakes, the fluffy, light cupcake and the way the two combine to make even the worst of days bearable.

Yes, you guessed correctly: my favorite thing to have is the Boston cream pie cupcake. Saying that is my favorite treat doesn’t come close to describing exactly how much I enjoy this custardy dessert. This is what helps me get through the endless months without bomboloni (to better understand my fascination with bomboloni, read some of my posts on these perfect Italian breakfast pastries). Yes, the Boston cream pie cupcake makes being away from Italy just a little brighter. This probably explains why I have a cupcake every single day and why I am so excited to be able to get one today after a week. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, in the past week I have not been without custard (that would not be possible). I made sure to save a couple of cupcakes in the fridge and even the freezer. They were not nearly as good as when I get them fresh, but they got me through a tough week. I also paid a visit to a Sicilian bakery in Andersonville (more about that in another post) and had a treat with Sicilian custard. But nothing compares to the Boston cream pie cupcakes made by Gina and her friends.

To start with, this is the lightest, tastiest cupcake I have ever had. The batter is light without being insubstantial and even though I am not the biggest fan of yellow cake, I can eat this kind of yellow cake any time. The middle of the cupcake is hollowed out and filled with thick, smooth, heavenly custard unlike any other I have ever tasted. If you are lucky enough to have a cupcake minutes after it has been filled with fresh custard, you will never think about what is essentially a cooked mixture of milk, eggs, sugar, flour and vanilla the same way again. On days when I get to Sensational Bites as the cupcakes are being brought out of the back, I have been known to have two instead of my usual one. It’s an experience impossible to put into words.

It is not unfair to suggest that my favorite part of the whole cupcake is the custard itself (I believe by now my love of custard is well-known) and I have been known to just scoop out the custard on days when I am too full to eat the entire cupcake (I am never too full to have custard). Another thing that shows just how much I adore Gina’s custard is the fact that most often I will simply skip the chocolate ganache the cupcake is glazed with. Me skip chocolate?!? Now, there is something I never thought I’d do, but the custard is simply so good that everything else, including the chocolate, fades in comparison.

Even the coldest, gloomiest, most stressful day can be turned around by Gina’s heavenly custard and the fluffy pillow of yellow cupcake that is its vessel. Cheers to that!

To experience one of these delectable cupcakes (or any other delicious dessert), go to

Sensational Bites
3751 N. Southport Ave.
Chicago, IL 60613
(closed Monday)

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