I have often viewed inventiveness in culinary worlds as a skill, not a gift.
For akin to the faux but enlightening Chef Gusto of Ratatouille de Paris, anyone can cook, but only very few can invent.
Italian cuisine could not be more disparate than any other. Widespread to the point of being street style to Michelin almost instantly, and global enough that anyone in any country can familiarize themselves with pizza or pasta, its become a cuisine that I often refrain from. Except when I was at Milan Fashion Week, of course, bringing back memoires of a 19 course meal.
Nonetheless, I was tempted by Spiaggia, the only four star in my favorite culinary city Chicago, with feathers like a 2014 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Restaurant in its cap. Chef-partner Tony Mantuano is a recipient of the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Midwest and the Chicago Tribune’s Good Eating Award, joined by Executive Chef Chris Marchino. Plus the Magnificent Mile dazzle was enough to swoon me into the swanky decor. Slightly more modernist than stonework Milan or earthy Rome, but a thematically black, white and metal finish gave it a refined look.
The menus arrived with a breaded sculpture that reminded me of the sole reason why I enjoy coming to authentic Italian haunts: the bread. And there is no excuse for distraught or cold bread. What arrived here was American cheese inspired pillars of wheat toast, alternating with red pizza spiced ones. Delicate so that a touch would induce breakage, the precariousness involved in eating these was worth the crumbly aftermath. For the punch in sumptuous taste tricked me into believing I was actually not eating a pizza!
The amuse-bouche was a sphere of pumpernickel tweal with zucchini and whipped ricotta. Refreshing to the core and disguised as a cool cucumber, the fibrous zucchini was a good match for the chilled ricotta. And the tweal was honestly more of a playground toy, what with enough orifices to peer at neighbors with.
Next came the homage to the grand tomato, otherwise only respected when ordering a Bloody Mary. A dish that elevated my respect for this poor fruit caught in an identity crisis of vegetables. Visually stunning, it was a dry tomato shell that had to be lifted to unveil the interior of fresh buratta cheese. The texture of this red igloo was stunning, for the chefs had acquired a mystical translucence in the visual. It was accompanied with a green tomato gel, with green tomato brine, chlorophyll and tri-colored tomato. A circus of flavors danced in my mouth, from the chilled cheese to the tart freshness of the tomato to the tartness of the pickled varieties. Plus, the whimsical playfulness of essentially eating part of the physical plating!
Next came an all too familiar floral plate of raviolo, reminding me distinctly of a beautiful Milanese culinary experience. Looking like an artist’s mural on a church wall, it also had a summery scent of honey and floral notes, laced with the richness of truffles. And sure enough, what I had in front of me was pecorino broth with honey as a bed for raviolo stuffed with truffles and ricotta, accompanied by fava beans, lemon preserves and florets. The actual raviolo was slightly al dente, which was my preference, and oozed dense flavor with the truffles, paradoxically clashing against the delicate florets and honey broth. In addition to being the showstopper for artistry on a plate, and one that I would continue to dream of for nights to come.
A heavier dish ensued with a coy smiley face made of truffles, which coyly reminded me that beyond the magic was a world of emojis and social media. With whiffs of cooked brown butter enveloping me in tight hugs, I dived straight in for my favorite Italian pasta: the ever dependable potato stuffed gnocchi. This one was simple, sans any frills of preceding rounds and reminding me of a homey Italian experience, elevated only slightly with truffle jue. I finished in a few mesmerizing minutes and almost expected by nanny to come pick me up and tuck me into bed.
And such graceful was the Italian hospitality in the pinnacle of the golden Midwest, that my dessert platter arrived specially and whimsically prepared for me, with insightful conversations with the chefs and sous chefs! Boarded on a cheeseboard of sorts, this was able to accomplish a 3D architectural feat, with elevated desserts like Alice in Wonderland‘s “Eat Me” temptations. All in bite sizes, a preferred format for inhaling all things sweet.
At a loss for where to start, I commenced a voyage through this sailing ship by first trying the white chocolate popcorn caramel, a delectable blend of ultra sweet with crispy crackly, making me aspire for a bucket of these at the movies. The coconut fruit panna cotta was more fruit than coconut, but refreshing nonetheless. As was the spherical ginger crumble vanilla raisin mousse atop an edible caramel sliver. The visual prowess overshadowed the rather vanilla taste. Being a fan of fitness and seeds to the point that some wonder if I’ll sprout wings, I fell in love with the sunflower seed pecan brittle, wishing that mainstream granola bars were like this. Crunchy and retaining a delightful raw flavor, it was also slightly sweet without being glued to my teeth. The basil mango cake atop a chocolate one made for a rather ordinary combination elevated simply by the richness of its flavors: a very mango-like punch, and a very dense chocolate. Clearly calling for a grapefruit sour gel candy to digest what would foray into my dreams for days to come.
Being the culinary Italian that I had transformed into, courtesy of one of the best meals I had inhaled in months, accompanied by flawless hospitality, I sipped up one luscious cappuccino.
Not just to pinch myself out of the dream, but to ensure I didn’t board a flight to Milan but retreated back into the Magnificent Mile, self assured that life was in fact an artist’s palette, and a palette begs for the artist in all fields of culinary.
For without art, the e-art-h is just… eh.