Sky Full of Bacon


So I did a couple of best of’s for Thrillist, this one of the best Italian beef in Chicago, this one of tavern cut pizza, and this one of barbecue. Mostly I had a pretty firm idea of what I thought the best for each list should be. But in each case, I felt there were a few places in each category that I had been meaning to try forever, and I should try before I passed definitive word on that category. Some made it onto those respective lists— Villa Nova lived up to its pizza rep, I was delighted to find that Duke’s on south Harlem, which I had blown past to go eat middle eastern food for ages, was as good as it was and used live charcoal for its sausages, and Green Street Smoked Meats turned out to be surprisingly good BBQ as well as by far the most faux-atmospheric fake honky tonk in town, one of those places like at Disneyland where it’s so dark and midnight-feeling inside that it’s disorienting to walk into straight from sunlight and early evening; you feel like you just blacked out for several hours.

But others didn’t quite make the cut— or didn’t come anywhere near. Here’s my report on the ones left on the cutting room floor.

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ITALIAN BEEF

There were several Italian beefs I felt I should try, including Duke’s and Bari (both of which made the list), and my son Myles had a day off from school the day I had open to do it, so we made an Italian beef expedition out of it, hitting both those places and more, eating only as much of each sandwich as seemed necessary to be able to write about it. Another one I wanted to try was The Patio on Taylor Street, and as long as we were there I thought we might as well establish a baseline and get a few pics at the original Al’s a few blocks east, so we started there. I don’t rank Al’s #1 but it’s clearly top-tier, and Myles really enjoyed it.

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The Patio.

Commenters on the article plumped for The Patio but as far as I could see, its only merit is for people who think Al’s small, $7 or $8 sandwich isn’t enough food. For $6 at The Patio you get a bigger sandwich, but it has none of the spark that Al’s has— it’s a plain, fairly drab broth, and the meat is ordinary (but there’s lots of it!) Not top ten material, clearly.

Now, after the article came out people listed lots of their own choices in the comments. Some I flat out disagree with; Buona Beef isn’t much good at anything, and while Portillo’s is better, I still don’t think its beef is exciting enough to make a top ten, though I might give it a spot in the next ten. While the guy who suggested some place’s beef and cheddar croissant, well… One that really intrigued me, though, was Serrelli’s Food Mart in Elmwood Park. Now, being down the street from Johnnie’s may be as unpromising as being down the street from Al’s, but Serrelli’s is mainly an Italian grocery, and it’s primarily known for selling its premade Italian beef to people for their own parties at home— there are big tubs in the refrigerator case.

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That said, they also have a sandwich counter inside, so I ordered a beef there. I watched as the guy got out some fresh roast beef, portion controlled with white paper, and dropped it into the broth. A few minutes later:

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The bread was good. The broth was as good as any in town, full of bright spice flavor. But the sandwich was done in by the unmistakable fact that the beef had just met the broth moments before; it had no real taste of its own. Admittedly, I was there at a very off-peak hour, which makes me think that this all might be better at lunchtime when the meat’s been in the juice for a while in anticipation of faster turnover. Even moreso, it’s probably better at home, when you make it and let it sit for a while. There’s promise here, for sure, but an IB from the counter at almost 3 p.m. was not a contender that day.

The Patio
1503 W Taylor St
(312) 829-0454

Serrelli’s Food Mart
6454 W North Ave, Elmwood Park
(877) 385-2333

TAVERN-CUT PIZZA

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There were only two pizzas I felt I needed to try, after trying so many Great Unknown Pizzas, and only one was open for lunch, so I went to La Villa, which is just down the street from Smoque. (The other, as noted, was Villa Nova in Stickney, which made the list.) It’s really more of a banquet hall— there was a funeral lunch the day I went, but credit to our waitress for knowing how to keep a small order from getting lost behind the table of 30— and initially I was impressed by the pizza, which had a handmade, biscuity crust which was on the more substantial side of thin crust.

The problem was that after the crust, there just wasn’t much zip to this pizza. Both the sausage and the tomato sauce were too mild to make much of an impression. This wouldn’t be a bad pizza if it was your local delivery choice, but I can’t recommend it for any great distance of travel, which is essential to making a list like this.

La Villa
3632 N Pulaski Rd
(773) 283-7980

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BARBECUE

I actually had two barbecue lists in the works— one for Thrillist and one for Where Chicago which isn’t out yet— and of course I wanted them to be different in a way that was tailored to their respective audiences, so I’m not going to give away ones that didn’t make the former but did make the latter. Except that I do want to encourage people to check out one that made the latter list, which is Uncle J’s on 47th. If it sounds like Uncle John’s… yes, it’s his daughter and her family. Joe Roy turned it up in this Serious Eats article on the heirs to that beloved, now-closed BBQ spot, and I have to say, it’s awfully close. Maybe a touch Uncle John’s Lite, smokewise, but it jumps to being one of the best places that’s also pretty accessible (a pretty quick jaunt from 43rd on the Ryan). Anyway, the tips and links will bring you back pretty quickly to Uncle John’s (though that may not be so necessary; check out this intriguing bit of intel at LTHForum).

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And I’m going to put in a word for another place that didn’t make either list, but I think deserves more respect than it got by being stuck in a bro-bashing train wreck of a thread at LTHForum, which also takes Mike Sula’s review as gospel, untried, which isn’t fair, I think. Admittedly, I had an unusual experience of Old Crow Smokehouse in Wrigleyville, which was that a PR rep and the chef stopped by my house with a box of things to try. (Curiously, they left off the Asian side of the menu that Sula describes entirely.) So take this hack plug with whatever tub of salt you want. But I thought the brisket and the smoked chicken were quite good, and I thought the housemade sauces had some real kick and complexity (I saved a couple of them for future use when the meat was all gone). The chef, a former steelworker turned midlife BBQ guy working long restaurant hours, has a good story, too (I wonder if a bit of the LTH antipathy has to do with perceived loyalty to a rival midlife BBQ guy). Anyway, if you actually try it for yourself and agree with Sula (who didn’t slam it as badly as some places), fair enough, but I think it deserves more of an actual trial than it seems to be getting. Again, we come back to Mike G’s Axiom of Modern BBQ: almost any BBQ place open right now would have been the best BBQ on the north side in the 1990’s.

Uncle J’s Bar-B-Q
502 E 47th St
(872) 244-3535

Old Crow Smokehouse
3506 N Clark St
(773) 537-4452

I have eaten many things lately and written about them widely; find out about Italian beeves and thin crust pizze at Thrillist, go try this neighborhood Mexican thing I wrote about in my last regular column piece for Serious Eats Chicago, and so on. Here are some more:

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Boka. Well-off older people in Old Town and Lincoln Park have a new clubhouse and its name is Boka. Some might find a disconnect between Lee Wolen’s artful, slightly precious food and the more hipster room, which has the funky Tim Burtonesque touches of another Boka Group spot, Girl & The Goat. But a packed, silver-haired Boka on a Saturday might be an argument that coherence is overrated; Avec has always had a disconnect for me between Italian-German comfort food and its severe Swedish sauna decor (and lack of comfort), and it’s taken that disconnect all the way to the bank. I suspect Boka will too, for a long time to come.

As at The Lobby, Wolen’s food is clean, precise modern food, executed flawlessly, that makes fairly classical flavors seem like they were just invented. Octopus in a pork broth that, as Mike Sula said, would make a great bowl of ramen (below); delicate yet muscular loup de mer (above) with artichokes and olives; his celebrated roasted chicken with brioche under the skin— there are resemblances to Izard’s hit-all-the-flavor-receptors-at-once approach, especially since every dish has its spot of citrus for a sweet note (which gets a bit expected when you try everything, like I did), but it’s all much subtler, more contained. You have to look at the menu description to see how complex the dishes can be, and that, rarely, there’s never anything on the plate that’s just there to fill you up— every vegetable, every little bit of something green, is in there for a clear reason in the conception of the dish’s overall flavor. (It has to be the fewest starches I can remember seeing on plates like these, ever.)

Once or twice a dish seemed to lack pop— I wanted more briny rusticness from the salt cod ravioli— but mostly you admire what he can do within the bounds of restraint and a dish plated in a neat little circle. Nobody colors within his own lines better at the moment than Wolen. The kitchen was a little slow on a packed Saturday night, but the room full of people happy to be there didn’t seem especially concerned by it. Disclosure: we dined like real people, but I was known to them, not least because I had just interviewed Wolen, and he comped us to a complete set of the available desserts. I also attended Boka’s 10th anniversary party. On the other hand, Wolen, and especially Boka partners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, seemed to know a lot of people there that night, so that probably was close to a typical experience…

1729 N Halsted St
(312) 337-6070

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Homestead. The rooftop restaurant above Roots Handmade Pizza has promoted its previous #2, Chip Davies. The menu still looks a lot like Chris Curren’s, with some dishes carried over or evolved, but what I liked best was the new spin Davis brought to many of the dishes, of middle-eastern flavors and ingredients such as green almonds (which could have been favas if I hadn’t been told). The middle-eastern tinge gives Homestead something distinctive to hold onto as it otherwise serves up nicely comfy kind-of-rustic-Italian dishes like the orecchiete with smoked oxtails, or roasts a chicken but puts it in a tagine broth with golden raisins, which you might see anywhere otherwise. If we ever have a nice day and people can sit on its patio, it will be exactly the sort of unpretentious summer neighborhood restaurant experience that everyone hopes for in Chicago. Chris Teixeira’s desserts seem a bit too fancy for the room, but hey, disconnects and all that; I admire that he keeps the sweetness damped down and the combination of a chocolate one and a carrot one, after the rustic food, was pretty great. Disclosure: this was a media dinner, which my son and I attended.

1924 W Chicago Ave
(773) 904-1145

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Les Miserables. As long as I’m disclosing, the same son and I went as guests on opening night to Drury Lane’s new production of Les Miserables, after seeing the movie some months back. 20 years ago, I saw it at the Auditorium Theater, from about six blocks away it felt like, and watching the famous revolving stage moving from that distance had all the excitement of watching a chair swivel. Better seats and a more intimate production made this a far more satisfying experience, a thoroughly professional one (led by a Valjean, Ivan Rutherford, who had been in the Broadway production’s long run and done it 2000 times around the country by now, and is, shall we say, very comfortable in the role), where the focus was on the actors over the (handsome but not overly expensive) setting. The slickly pro cast had two particular standouts, Mark David Kaplan giving the rogue Thenardier more humor and rascally charm than Sasha Baron Cohen’s muggy performance in the movie, and the one major example of race-neutral casting, Quentin Earl Darrington as a most ominous Javert, a regular Darth Javert in stentorian James Earl Jones-tones that set Javert even more apart from the citizens in the story.

http://www.drurylaneoakbrook.com/live-theatre/

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Isla Pilipina. I went to Isla Pilipina in a rather memorably titled LTH post many years ago, but hadn’t returned until almost a decade later when we went with some friends, who had just visited the Phillippines. Anyway, it is a very different place a decade later, much more professional in the manner of any well-run, well-packaged Asian restaurant, and packed on Saturday night. We ordered tons of food (with kids, there were eight of us), including two 20-piece orders of lumpia (devoured almost entirely by the kids), funky kare-kare (oxtail and green beans in peanut sauce), lechon kawali (deep-fried pork belly with a kind of gravy), fried chicken, grilled sirloin with a Filipino marinade tinge, garlic rice, pancit noodles and more (the spaghetti with hot dogs in it, which the kids were enthused about based on description, came late and went untouched, alas). Anyway, suffice it to say that it will not be another 10 years, and Isla Pilipina quickly zoomed to where it should have been all along on my list of Asian neighborhood gems.

2501 W Lawrence Ave
(773) 271-2988

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Paco’s Tacos. When I put Zacatacos on a Thrillist list of south side places, several people suggested Paco’s Tacos instead. But a year or so ago, for a Grub Street list, I had tried the two back to back and it was no contest. Titus of Tweets of Taco said, you need to go to the original Paco’s, inside a supermercado. So I gave it a try. We stood in a good-sized line. A guy behind us seemed to be talking legal advice for his crew on his cellphone, or maybe that was our recent Breaking Bad-viewing coloring the conversation. We got our tacos. He’s right, these are much better than other Paco’s, and rank highly among south side steak tacos. Still think I’d pick Zacatacos first, but always worth knowing another one.

4556 S. Ashland
(773) 523-9745

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Taqueria Coacoyula. I spotted this place driving down Fullerton and thought it said it offered breakfast tacos, which would be a great find if true (and good). I must have conflated the signage, which does reference breakfast on weekends but not tacos. Still, I gave it a try at lunch, paying 50 cents extra for hand made tortillas. And I would still rate it a find, making very satisfying salty steak tacos in chewy, delectable freshmade tortillas, and doing a nice job on pastor tacos even without a cone (but lots of pineapple tossed in). That stretch of Fullerton (Austin to Cicero or so) is full of good things worth exploring, including this steak place, this modest comida, the tacos de canasta at La Chilangueada and more.

5823 W. Fullerton
(773) 237-2730

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Detroit Kabob House. Cathy Lambrecht and my kids and I tried to go here once after she did a canning demo for their 4-H chapter, and they chased us out 15 minutes before closing. But we tried again at lunch recently and got a decidedly better welcome, and I’m glad we went back. They don’t use charcoal like some of the Bridgeview-area middle eastern places (or ones in Detroit, that is, Dearborn), but even on gas grill, they did a terrific job grilling kebobs and other meats. I was less excited by the sides— baba ghanoush was fine, Jerusalem salad kind of a mess— but it’s a definite stop along the Niles stretch of Milwaukee for some simply, expertly grilled meats.

9021 N Milwaukee Ave, Niles, IL 60714
(847) 967-9100

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Airwaves Full of Bacon 10: Phillip Foss Rides Again! • Jeff Ruby on Picking Chicago Magazine’s Best Restaurants • Nigella Lawson on Italian Food and Chicago

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Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.

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Saddle up, we’re going forward into the past in this episode of Airwaves Full of Bacon.

(1:40) Phillip Foss of EL Ideas gave up his food truck, the Meatyballs Mobile, two and a half years ago, but he took it out for one day recently and I tagged along. We talk about the food truck life from the perspective of someone who’s been out of it for years, and answer the burning question— how many tickets will he get from the city today?

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A version of this story and lots more pictures were at the Reader here. The guy with the food truck blog, Food Truck 50, who we run into can be found here and on Twitter.

(19:21) My south side recommendations were Don’s Humburgers, Taqueria Tayahua and The Tamale Lady. Here’s the Thrillist piece on the South Side I co-wrote with Titus Ruscitti.

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(20:59) Then I talk with Jeff Ruby of Chicago Magazine about the latest edition of their best new restaurants in Chicago list. Here’s a recent Reader post by me that Jeff references. We met at Aroy Thai, and had the soup I talk about here.

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(43:37) And finally, an interview from February 2013 with TV personality/lifestyle goddess Nigella Lawson, which originally appeared at Grub Street here and here. It was recorded during her book tour for Nigellissima. Here’s what she tweeted a few hours later, her final word on Chicago food.

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Post-dinner bathroom selfie, representing the cool, subtle atmosphere of Tanta.

Peru is the future, the international culinary press tells us. Bilbao is apparently over, twigs in Denmark and Norway are so last year, but Peru is the coming thing, says the S. Pellegrino Top 50 List, and just as this improbable announcement happens Chicago gets an outpost of a chain from one of the top chefs in the country, Gaston Acurio. Yes, it’s a chain, Acurio has some 60 restaurants or something, but still, there are high hopes for this culinary consulate in Chicago that seem mostly to be realized— Sula likes it, Vettel likes it okay, Chicago mag’s crew likes it so much that it snags the #3 spot on their best new restaurants list.

I walk in and it’s a small, noisy place, half-full in the restaurant but full at the bar. In other words, it’s River North. My dining companion is not here yet so I’m told to take a place at the bar. I walk over to the two open seats and… there’s a Reserved sign on them. Seriously? Reserved at the bar? Did they not know this when they sent me to take them, ten feet from the host stand?

I manage to squeeze into another place, making no friends on either side, and look at the festive, aggressively You’re Having a Fun Latin Time! bar, a colorfully painted description of their signature Pisco Sour telling me Ay Caramba, you want one of these, Señor! I get one. Anthony Todd arrives and so I decide to just pay my tab and go sit. We are in the process of doing that when the host comes from the stand, apparently offended that the fact of Anthony standing there with no chair breaks the plane of orderly drinkers at the bar, and suggests that we pay up and go sit. Using the waiter/host voice that, in France, I call “Would Monsieur be so kind as to put his pants on and come down from the chandelier?”

We take a very long route for such a small restaurant, past many attractive and comfortable empty tables, to be told to squeeze into a 2-top in a middle of a row of them, the kind of table where getting up at the end bears a strong resemblance to a game of Jenga. Just to see what happens, I pretend to misunderstand and take the marginally more desirable, equally unused table at the end, where I’ll only be elbow to elbow with one side and have a nice comfy divider on the other.

Would Monsieur be so kind…

Our waiter comes out shortly and he launches into the kind of speech that you get at T.G.I. Friday’s. (Need more flair, kid!) Our menu is divided into large small plates and small large plates and small large shrimp boats and large small small large family platsters and Peruvian food brings you the taste of many cultures including China, Scotland and upstate Saskatchewan and we suggest starting with nine cebiches, eleven shrimp boats and a plate of our Jack Daniels Jalapeno Ranch Dressing Potato Skins topped with an entire marlin. I may have gotten that last one confused with an item at Guy’s American Kitchen.

We wait for him to leave and then discuss amongst ourselves; Anthony had been once before so he has some idea of what we might want. The waiter comes back and we order a cebiche and something or other involving octopus. “That’s a great start, and should I put in an order of our Cheesy Cinco de Gallo Muy Latin Potato Bark Scrumpins as your third item?” he upsells, desperately, hope against hope that tonight, he will make his numbers and not have to sleep chained in the basement where, late at night, you hear the scratching and the unearthly cries.

We’re both shaking our heads at how a place renowned when it first opened as an addition to the sophisticated Chicago scene has devolved to such a Schaumburg mall parking lot level of clumsy, hard-sell customer experience. But at least the food should be good, Anthony says, it was all bright and interesting however many months back he had eaten here. Here’s what we had:

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Fluke cebiche. Although this was full of flavorless, styrofoam-peanut-like white corn things, to make it look bigger, the fluke itself was nice and delicate and the tangy liquid was just so and, if you wanted an argument for Peruvian cuisine, this was the best one of the night and reasonably priced for the quantity. If only they hadn’t felt the need to tell us to eat it with a spoon like soup (Would Monsieur care to use silverware rather than his toes?), which instantly cheapened the experience of some sashimi-level fish.

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Pulpo anticucho. This was advertised as skewers. It came out looking like an 8-year-old trying to make something like sushi, using mashed potatoes for the rice. We hadn’t drunk enough yet to need fried potatoes with every course.

Chaufa aeropuerto. Mike Sula had praised this pork and rice dish in the Reader. Which turns out to make perfect sense, inasmuch as he loves Korean food and the name the rest of the world knows for it is dolsot bibimbap. It was a perfectly decent rendition, comfy and unchallenging, lots of nice crusty rice. And $23 for something that goes for around $9 around town. Anthony thought that it was tamer than it had been before, when there was more complexity to what little spice it had.

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Adobo de res. The beef cheeks in this dish were cooked beautifully, and the sauce would have been fine in a French bistro, the only problem here was that any promise of Latin spicing went unfulfilled (the sauce was supposed to be adobo sauce but only had the slightest, the cilantro-pepian goo around it was overly sweet).

Nothing was terrible, but nothing seemed focused either, nothing seemed to even reflect the same culture as we ping-ponged from Mexico to Korea. Nothing after the cebiche seemed to come from any tradition deeper than “Hey drunk Americans, here’s a mess of fried potatoes.” We went in looking for a new cultural experience (which Anthony feels he had at that first early visit), we found, basically, a Señor Frog’s for adults, another Mercadito, the same old Latin cliches of a muy bueno good time mi amigos, with Piscos instead of margaritas, apparently dumbed-down and ironed flat since opening for who their customers in River North really are. If this is the future, ay caramba.

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Sometimes people express the notion that my dining life is so much more interesting and exciting than theirs. As if they couldn’t largely do the same; it just takes the will to drive too far for things too strange to be entirely comfortable. But sometimes, once in a great while thankfully, you get one that just goes completely, comically, tragically wrong from start to finish. Here’s a story like that.

I was, I admit, feeling a bit sorry for myself; Twitter was full of friends on business trips or food media junkets to Vegas or Napa, my sister the world traveler had just posted pics of herself with camels in Abu Dhabi and antelope in Senegal, and I had a tub of salad greens in the fridge. I had serious cabin fever and nothing to do about it. Well, we could at least be travelers of a sort in our own city by going to Chinatown. I picked out a place called Yan Bang Cai, fairly new on Cermak, and we headed there. Chinatown was hopping, but a couple of tables were open and we get pointed to table #1.

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The view from Table 1.

I’m just slow enough on the uptake to realize that us four fairly large non-Asians have been squeezed into a table the size of an elevator (and we got the shaft, ba-dum ching!) So my plan to go out and see the world means I am now squeezed even closer face to face with my family than we were at home, and basically afforded a close view of two walls while behind me, in the distance, I can hear a restaurant. It’s sort of like the vantage point you have on a music festival like Lollapalooza— from the Porta-Potties.

They’re obviously short-staffed, but we manage to get a set of menus. I had done some reading beforehand and had some dishes in mind. But I instantly realize I’m not going to find them— I’ve been given the most hilariously dumbed-down white people’s menu ever, full of Chinese-American classics like Shrimp Toast and Almond Chicken. It’s the Chinese equivalent of a guy in a sombrero and a big droopy mustache telling you to try the Taco Burger, seenyore, it’s muy bueno!

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At least give it this much: it had a note advising you there was an “authentic” menu too. Though when we ask for it, in another first-in-a-long-time we’re told they’re all in use and we’ll have to wait for one. But eventually we get it and it’s a hoot in its own way, with its page telling us which dishes were particular favorites of which Chi-Commie leader (Mao, Deng Xiao-Ping, etc.) when he visited the salt mining region of Sichuan. So we order some things… and commence to wait in our Porta-Boothie.

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And wait, quite a long time. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who had to, the Chinese punks in faux-hawks, skinny black jeans and tennis shoes, looking like the cast of a John Woo remake of West Side Story, who were making the most noise had time to go smoke a few times out front. Finally, one dish— a twice-cooked pork (i.e. pork belly) dish with cabbage and hot sauce arrived.

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It was the best thing we would eat that night— not that much of an achievement since that list would prove to be shorter than we expected. But I really liked the kind of braised, or at least wilted and softened up, cabbage in the spicy oil. We pretty much finish it, and then… we wait some more. And more. We pass the one hour mark. Next, at least 20 minutes later, we get potstickers, gummy and pretty poor, and “small plate chicken,” which comes out smelling like Indian curry.

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It’s all right, but I’d rather have good Indian food. Or middle-eastern or lots of places where they know how to do more with a chicken than this, which is kind of stew it to death. Nevertheless, we eat a fair amount of it, because it is the last food we will actually see there. Many more minutes pass, we’ve been there well over an hour, and we begin to consider scenarios of giving up. Put money on the table and walk away? I give it serious thought for the first time in years. We’re about to go when a waitress comes out. We tell her we just want our food wrapped and the check, if she can cancel the remaining dishes. Oh no, it’s already cooking, we’re told.

Perhaps she believed that. I will be charitable. Since one is soup with noodles, I don’t believe it’s really so much cooked as assembled, but let’s assume she thought that was true. We give in and sit down.

At an hour and a half we know, though, that nothing was cooking at that moment twenty or more minutes earlier. We will never get out. We are doomed to the smallest table in the slowest Chinese restaurant on earth, unable to see the actual restaurant as Plato’s cave-dwellers see only shadows, not the thing itself. My butt hurts from sitting. The only redeeming thing I can think of is that the kids are old enough to be both patient and self-possessed; if this had happened when they were five years younger and whinier, it would have been a hundred times more miserable.

One more dish arrives and we ask for it to be packaged up, and please bring the check. The check of course charges us for the last remaining undelivered item, which we want to see about as much as cholera at that point. We get her attention and point the error out. It’s on its way. Of course it is. But we cannot argue. Just package it to go, please. I’m sure at that point she ran back and told the cook to make a salt miner’s eggplant fast, or they’d lose the sale.

So at an hour and 45 minutes we finally can wedge ourselves out of the booth and leave with a full meal’s worth of leftovers. If Deng Xiao Ping had had this experience on a state visit, he’d have flooded the salt mines out of pique. Some of this I can’t fault them for— they were clearly short-handed in front, and evidently in back and on the sides, too— but I can fault them for so manifestly not thinking about it from the customer’s point of view in any way shape or form, like even admitting that it had been, and would continue to be, a loooooong f’ing time for the food. There’s really no choice; Yan Bang Cai wins Sky Full of Bacon’s lowest award, the GFY.

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They shoulda sent us a rescue squad!

In the last few years there have been several documentaries which sought to explore the world of food at its very highest level. Such films as Jiro Dreams of Sushi and El Bulli: Cooking in Progress show how working with food and seeking perfection can become a kind of spiritual quest.

After making so many shorter films about food, I wanted to find a similar subject which would allow me to explore food at the highest, most artistic and spiritual level. That’s why I am excited today to debut the trailer for my upcoming release, Edzo Dreams of Cheeseburgers:

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The estimable Alan Richman has a piece up in which he decries a new tendency toward what he calls egotarian dining experiences. What is that exactly? Well, I’m not sure by the end and I’m not sure he is either, which I think is an honest reflection of his conflict. Basically he wants to disapprove of chefs who do too weird things, too egotistically show-offy things… and, it seems, too Redzepi-influenced things full of twigs and bizarre combinations. The problem with his piece is that he keeps having to acknowledge that some of it is pretty great.

What we have, it seems to me, is a movement that’s letting chefs just put themselves and their influences and their journey of personal discovery out there, almost uninhibited by normal commercial concerns. And so, guess what? Give chefs their heads and somewhere some of them turn out to be fatuous blowhards who forgot to make it taste good, or forgot that people might not want a pig’s blood tree moss pudding. (That’s never happened in a glitzy downtown spot, of course. Well, the blood moss pudding hasn’t, anyway.) Yet when I think of what we have in Chicago that kind of resembles what he describes, I can’t think of any place currently operating that landed on that side of the tightrope. We have by now a small movement of these experiential restaurants where the chef is on stage and you’re the participatory audience, and so far, to put it bluntly… none of them suck. None of them are full of crap. They’re all pretty wonderful, really, each in a way that could only come from that chef. (We also have, in Iliana Regan, what Richman says this movement never has: “Not once have I seen a female chef prepare such food.”)

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Salad with beet macaron.

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Tom yum soup in coconut noodle.

Maybe we’re just lucky, but anyway, that brings me to 42 Grams, the new restaurant version of Sous Rising, the underground restaurant I wrote about (and mostly loved) here. I don’t have a lot to add to what I said then; the restaurant version hasn’t traveled far from the underground version in either distance (it’s downstairs from their apartment) or approach, though I do think the increase to full-time service has, unsurprisingly, sharpened technique and the menu, and I thought the lesser courses had mostly gone away (one came back in a new context, but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Chef Jake Bickelhaupt is young and his influences can be picked out— especially when he does a classic El Bulli trick (the espresso espuma that you can turn upside down and not spill… which I saw Ferran Adria demonstrate two days later). But where the young chef who overuses powders and gels is becoming a cliché (more than one chef has said to me some version of “They want to make molecular cuisine before they know how to roast a chicken”), Bickelhaupt has technology under his control and doesn’t forget to make things taste good. The “espresso” comes as a scene change into dessert, just as the meal started with the wit of a gelled cocktail, but what’s in between is mostly simpler, less visibly tricky, and focused on the simplicity of a star ingredient— meltingly sweet and gentle uni on a circle of brioche with maple cream underneath, sushi meeting biscuits and gravy; or the flavors of tom yum soup curled up inside a coconut noodle. Inventiveness is almost entirely in the service of producing delight.

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One time it wasn’t at Sous Rising was with an intense peccorino romano crisp which, I wrote, “sort of crossed the line from cheese smell to puke smell.” It is a rule, of course, that if you write 1000 words of praise the chef will only remember the criticism in passing. At a bigger restaurant that might just mean him muttering to his staff that “Hey, Mr. Puke Smell is in tonight.” But much of the point of 42 Grams is that you’re right there with Bickelhaupt, his wife Alexa and the two cooks helping him; she’s taking you through it course by course and the cooks, though focused on the task at hand, are right there too. So one course was introduced by way of telling the story of a writer who came in and said a dish smelled like puke. So I was offered a new (and frankly much better) variation, the Flaming Hot Cheetos version, while the others got the regular one.

And this to me is why this kind of dining is so much fun, such a magical experience well worth the cost (you are basically getting a private chef experience for eight people). The egotarian chef of Richman’s piece probably would have banned him for saying that, refused to serve him cured lichen ever again, but in Chicago it’s playful and intimate and theatrical and about having a party, not giving a symposium. So the food critic stings with words, and they respond in food.

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Me and my Flaming Hot Cheeto.

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Foie and scallop with blueberry and oxalis at Senza.

Barely a week later I went to Senza, which is known for two things: it’s gluten free, and the chef, Noah Sandoval, had worked at Schwa (actually, he was in the Key Ingredient video we shot there). Which potentially meant a third thing: a rare serious restaurant somewhere near the cutting edge, in Lakeview where restaurants are rarely serious and never cutting edge.

So after 42 Grams, maybe that’s cutting edge for Lakeview. It is a tasting menu, and it has some very fine courses with a lot of creative (but not egotarian!) touches, but I wouldn’t put it out as far as Schwa in terms of wild-ass crazy creativity— no chocolate and parsnip desserts. As for the gluten free, that’s a complete success— most of the meal you simply don’t think about the absence of anything, and the few things that are clear gluten-free substitute dishes— a loaf of surprisingly convincing black bread, a terrific agnolotti, a chocolate cake— were entirely satisfying; you never had to squint to convince yourself something was good. The agnolotti, in fact, was maybe the best dish, a melt in your mouth texture with the combination of lushness (a truffle slice, a parmesan crisp) and bright fruit (kumquat, huckleberry) that was a consistent approach throughout the meal.

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Other standouts included a lamb dish with both tender loin and a gamier chunk of belly, and a dessert— the kind that Richman describes as horse feed— in which oatmeal was joined with bright fruit flavors, pine nut foam and a meringue stick (I think it was meant to evoke something classic on a stick but I can’t figure out what now). Service was attentive and neighborhoody in the best sense, welcoming as if you were someone they’d expect to run into around the neighborhood. And it included one thing that floored me at the time, though in retrospect it makes perfect sense from their point of view of keeping a tasting menu on track. They don’t have valet parking and the best I could find was a two-hour spot two blocks away. When I needed to go feed the meter, they took down the location and description of my car, and someone ran out and fed it for me.

One more I’ve been to lately:

Analogue. Everybody loves this new Logan Square bar with an oh-so-hip unmarked entrance, and is praising their Cajun food as the best ever. I think they’ve been drinking! Okay, I’m not dissing it. It was pretty good. I went early on a Tuesday– one of those times when the bar is so empty that having the lights so low seems kind of silly; you just want to say, go ahead and turn a light on so you can see your work, folks. Anyway, I liked the drinks quite well, and I liked the Cajun food fine. The biscuits are genuinely great. The gumbo was good and had pretty good depth of flavor. The fried chicken sandwich was hard to judge because it was drowned in too much one-dimensional hot sauce, and on boring white bread; I was more impressed by Parson’s handling of such classic Southern stuff. So, as a non-barfly who ate early in my drinking, I find it kind of wildly overhyped by some— but that said, compared to the boring burger bar I just had open near me, I admire its ambition and the food is certainly above average for the genre. So this isn’t a diss, just a tempering of expectations. No need to serve me a Flaming Hot Cheeto next time I come in, which I will.

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Photos mostly by Liam Gebert.

I’ve had it in my head to build my own woodburning pizza oven since I went on a camping trip with my son Liam’s class at Angelic Organics a few years ago. (He goes to that kind of school.) They had a home-built one, very rustic and hippie-looking, and referred me to the bible for people who want to do this, Kiko Denzler’s Build Your Own Earth Oven. Denzler convinced me I could make a cool stone oven for about $25… but the book didn’t come with the land to do it on. And I couldn’t see anywhere on my Chicago property that I, or the adjacent houses, could feel happy about an oven sitting there hot enough to bake bread in… 24 hours after the fire went out.

Then I heard about the Kettle Pizza, which is designed to fit onto a Weber kettle (either 18″ or 22″). It’s basically a metal ring with an opening, nothing more than that (okay, it has handles and a thermometer too), but it’s just enough that you can build a fire around 6-700 degrees (or even more), heat up a stone, slide pizzas in and out, and get something like a Neapolitan pizza off your Weber kettle for maybe $200 or so.

Here’s how the first dinner went:

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I use a Weber chimney so I lit that, then poured out the hot coals in a C-shape at the back and tossed on some hickory chunks. Wood will burn hotter than charcoal, and I also wanted to see if I could use the more readily available hickory without a margherita pizza tasting like Texas brisket, or if I needed something like oak that doesn’t produce a smoke flavor. Then you put the ring on, set the stone in the middle, and cover it.

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Then off to make pizza #1. The night before I had made the standard dough recipe from Mark Bello, of New York’s Pizza a Casa school. Later I’ll dabble in 00 flour and stuff like that, but for now I wanted to try this reliable recipe using regular all-purpose flour, which I already knew worked in my oven. I made a margherita with some fresh mozzarella I’d picked up at Eataly on Friday.

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I went back out to check on the temperature and… it was only around 550 degrees. My fire was too small. Carefully I lifted and balanced the kettle on the edge while Liam poured in more charcoal and topped it with some more hickory. There were many possible disasters at this point, so I tell you this so you can avoid having to do it ever.

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Back out in a few minutes and the temperature was now off the scale, which tops out at 700. So 750-800 degrees, as high as most woodburning restaurant ovens. In pizza numero uno went!

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We waited 2-1/2 minutes, peeking through the slot. We could see the crust bubbling at this end, but I had been told it would cook faster nearer the fire (duh) and you needed to spin it halfway through.

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Well, so 2-1/2 minutes at this temperature was quite a bit more than halfway through, it turned out; the pizza was already black bubbles at the far end. Still, after being put back in to cook the other end for a moment, it looked pretty good for a first try.

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Pizza #2 was a recipe that I’d gotten from Bello himself when I went to a party he was cooking at here in Chicago. You put down olive oil mixed with honey (very quickly, since they separate again instantly), some sauteed onion, black pepper and hunks of taleggio cheese.

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This time we timed the twirling better, barely a minute and a half for each side…

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Then topped with some olive oil into which I’d shaved some Australian truffle.

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We sat down to eat at this point, the first pizza still hot. How were they? They came out very well for first tries. I think I spread the crusts too thin, and a little more bread would have helped, but they were definitely in the ballpark for Neapolitan pizza. A few thousand more and who knows?

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I had two more pizzas to make, another margherita and a Hawaiian which was meant to test how it cooked something covered with more ingredients than the margherita or other minimalist Neapolitan pizzas. Unfortunately, on this cold day by the time I got back out there the oven temperature had fallen down to barely above 500. But, of course, the stone retains its full heat for much longer. So I knew that this pizza would burn on the bottom before the top was done. I wound up holding it on the pizza peel up to the dome for a couple of minutes to get it done. I also realized that there was another tool I would need— a long brush to sweep the burnt semolina meal off the stone. The last two pizzas were less than ideal, but still were eaten happily, basically coming out like the pizzas I’d been making up to this point in my regular oven.

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And so, conclusions:

1) The Kettle Pizza works and is money well spent.
2) They say you want their stone because the one you have is only designed for indoor oven temps, so you might as well. It’s thicker, which is good.
3) Build a big fire that will last as long as you cook.
4) Turn earlier than it looks like you need to.
5) Hickory is fine, it didn’t taste like barbecue.
6) I like my new Kettle Pizza!

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I’ve been jonesing to get back in the business of searching for great unknown pizzas since long before the condition of the streets would permit it. To recap from past installments, the point is to look for unheralded, authentic old school pizza joints in different parts of the city where our pizza heritage may have survived. The quest is open-minded, but it’s pretty clear that the main focus is on thin crust joints with at least 30-40 years of heritage behind them, who still make them the way they made them back then. The methodology followed by collaborator Daniel Zemans and myself, as summed up in an earlier installment:

Our modus operandi is to order thin crust sausage, thin crust because it’s more common and takes less time, sausage because it best shows off the skills or tastes of the restaurant, if they make it themselves or even if it merely shows their own taste preferences and the level of quality they’re willing to pay for… Our main method for identifying them is simply searching Yelp for ones that give off clues that they might be promising. Every pizza place has somebody calling it the best pizza in the world, that doesn’t tell us anything; we’re more interested in comments that a place makes its own sausage or does something else that gives a clue that there’s blue-collar craftsmanship at work here.

And as Zemans tersely summed up the main indicator of good pizza neighborhoods: “Multiple generations of Italians.”

This time we (Zemans, me and fellow Serious Eats contributor Dennis Lee) decided to try the suburbs straight south of the city— literally across the street from the city in one case. For me part of the point was to finally hit one of the places that inspired this kind of quest when I spotted it years ago. I didn’t go to Roseangela’s in Evergreen Park then because I went here instead. But nine years later I was determined to go. Otherwise there was an embarrassment of riches in this area, and once we narrowed it down to six roughly along 95th between Beverly and Oak Lawn— Roseangela’s, Fox’s, Palermo’s, Phil’s, Barraco’s and Nino’s in Alsip— we pretty much just chose the final three randomly (or because Zemans had already been to a couple). So don’t say “Why didn’t you go to X, it’s great!” We know that. We may hit the other three some other time. These are the three we hit this time.

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Roseangela’s

Roseangela’s in the suburb of Evergreen Park at 95th and California has been around since 1955, and on this Thursday night it was doing a business; we’ve never run the risk of having a long wait to eat at one of these places before. Fortunately it was possible to order for takeout and then wait in line, so we sat down minutes before our pizza came out.

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I remember being perplexed in the early days of Chowhound by mentions of “cracker crust” Chicago pizza, vs. “foldable” New York thin. I had had Chicago thin but it was usually thicker and doughier than this; this is a true cracker crust, in both flavor and texture a spot-on double for a Saltine cracker. In other words, it didn’t really have any flavor— like tendon in Chinese soup, texture was everything, and it was a perfect crackly base for a super-thin pizza. The tomato sauce was tomato sauce straight from the can, the sausage didn’t have much flavor besides pork and salt, but was high quality and satisfying, and the cheese was maybe a little heavy for old school pizza, but certainly within range. Sometimes the highest praise you can give is “there’s nothing wrong with it,” which doesn’t sound all that much of a compliment, but it is one: this is a textbook example of its style in every department, we were very happy with it and agreed we would order it if we lived near it… but kind of feared that the evening had peaked with the first and would only go downhill from there.

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Roseangela’s Pizza
2807 1/2 W 95th St
Evergreen Park, IL 60805
(708) 422-2041

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Phil’s Pizza

Also doing a business that night was Phil’s Pizza on Ridgeland (aka Narragansett) in Oak Lawn, though this time it was delivery; there were two older delivery guys, one black, one the very picture of Souside Irish white, and we wound up chatting with both of them in between deliveries as well as the manager that evening as we waited to eat ours. Turned out we had just missed a crew from Chicago’s Best, who had shot video in there earlier in the afternoon. Besides trading pizza lore (Zemans and the Irish guy talked arcana of the early days of Giordano’s down on 63rd) and personal favorites, I got to take a look at what I first thought was another classic Faulds oven (see our first expedition) but turned out to come from another manufacturer, who Zemans said was a Chicago company but is now based in Connecticut. (Sadly, they now make the conveyor belt pizza ovens used by places like Domino’s, rather than these Ferris Wheel-style behemoths, and their site even trumpets that they just installed the obviously inferior kind at Comiskey Park. Infidels!)

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The pizza when it came out was obviously a much greater deviation from the thin crust of our imaginations—thicker crust, much thicker blanket of cheese:

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We didn’t have much hope for it when it came out of the oven, it looked like pretty generic pizza designed to fill you on bread, much like Positano’s in the first installment, but I have to say that even if it wasn’t our style, it was better than the sum of its parts, especially thanks to excellent sausage. Between the ingredients and the very friendly, obviously conscientious service, you could see why everybody who grew up on it loves it and has kept it in business all these years.

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Dennis attempts a cheese pull.

Phil’s Pizza
8932 Ridgeland Ave
Oak Lawn, IL 60453
(708) 599-4747

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Nino’s Pizza

I picked Nino’s in Alsip just because nobody beyond a few Yelpers ever seemed to have heard of it, compared to our others which seemed at least somewhat known. (Turned out there was a story about it in the Sun-Times 5 years ago, based on the fact that the dad was still running it in his 80s— he has since passed away— while the son ran Lettuce Entertain You’s Frankie’s Scallopine downtown.) We thought we’d arrived too late for it, as they were mopping and vacuuming, but they proved to be very accommodating about not only letting us in but letting us order deep dish as well as thin before the kitchen closed.

WAIT, DEEP DISH? you cry. Yes, deep dish, violating the primary tenet of our past investigations, which is that deep dish is north side pizza and south side is thin. (Never mind that Giordano’s started on 63rd.) Zemans interrogated the waitress to see if we should really go there, and when she described the crust (the same as the thin, just pushed up into the deeper pan) he was pretty much unsold, thinking that the crust would be uninteresting. But then she came back and really advocated it the way she likes it, and we believed that she knew what she was talking about because earlier we were expressing puzzlement at a news story on a rash of catalytic converter thefts affecting the south side and she responded with a detailed and convincing account of the catalytic converter theft racket (it’s the platinum they’re after). So we ordered a sausage deep dish, and, for variety, an Italian beef and giardinera thin (she suggested double sauce for that, pointing out along the way the fact that the thin and the deep had different sauces).

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Again the thin looked breadier and cheesier than it probably was when they opened years ago. I suspect in all of these cases, being in the suburbs has forced them, or simply encouraged them, over time to up the cheese to fit the idea of pizza that people have gotten from chain restaurants in the area (which is very built up, retail-wise); the ones on our first expedition in the city, where retail activity is much lower and fairly chain-free, haven’t dialed it up as much and consequently are closer to the fairly modest pizzas of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s my theory anyway. The other thing about the sauce was that it was very sweet, almost shockingly so; words like ketchup and barbecue sauce were tossed around. We were glad we had the giardinera on ours to cut that aspect of it.

Then the deep dish came.

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We were wowed by this thing, impressive as a crown roast, with its walls of dough surrounding the interior. Yes, it was the same crust, but it was a whole different thing folded into a thick dam of breadiness, too much bread to eat but fun to pull apart, releasing steam and offering the satisfaction of homebaked bread. There was a rough-hewn, homemade quality to this deep dish pizza that was instantly charming compared to the machine-round pizzas you almost always see. And the sausage was terrific— still light on fennel but bright and meaty and cravable, while the sauce was acidic crushed tomatoes, totally different from the sweet sauce on the thin crust. Zemans was still shaking his head at what the hell deep dish was doing here, but we all three loved it and agreed it was one of the best of its type to be had in the city, anywhere.

Nino’s Pizza
4835 W 111th St
Alsip, IL 60803
(708) 423-9100

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Zemans contemplates Phil’s.

Our conclusions: this is a major pizza region within Chicago, tied to its south side heritage but diverging from what it might have been 40 or 50 years ago in several significant ways, notably that the cheese is piled on much thicker. Sausage is taken seriously, even though none of them had the fennel that you take as a defining characteristic of Chicago sausage (and sets it apart from the breakfasty sausage crumble that’s typical in the rest of the country). Which of course means, maybe it isn’t one, nearly as much as we thought. And lastly, everybody was just so darn nice, that suburban niceness, even when they were literally 20 feet from the city in Roseangela’s case. A satisfying and revealing expedition— but the search will continue.

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Specials at Phil’s.

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Making Dim Sum at Fat Rice • Nico Osteria’s Erling Wu-Bower Talks Italian Seafood • Joe Campagna, Chicago Food Snob • Behind the Scenes With Big Head Farm

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It’s still the dead of winter, but we’ll warm up with things like dim sum and Italian food.

(1:44) First up, I go downstairs at Fat Rice as they prepare for Cha Gordo, the Macanese version of dim sum brunch:

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The full, gorgeous slideshow of these dishes is here at the Reader.

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(11:00) Next I talk to Erling Wu-Bower of Paul Kahan’s Nico Osteria about how you do Italian seafood in Chicago. A longer version of this was here and here at the Reader.

Chinese places I mention include Cai, Go4Food and Chengdu Impression.

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(24:20) Joe Campagna, former restaurant professional at Charlie Trotter’s, Graham Elliot, etc. and now of the blog Chicago Food Snob, was my guest at lunch for the next segment. We ate at Forno Rosso Pizzeria, 3719 N. Harlem, which I wrote about here.

(48:56) And I fill in the story of Big Head Farm and the Good Food Festival March 13-15 with (almost completely) unused bits from the shoot that yielded my new film Networking the Land. Listen, then see how the story gets condensed and visualized in the movie: