The famous book from author Thomas Wolfe says it plainly, “You can’t go home again.” I would like to personally dispute Mr. Wolfe, as I can, have, and will again return to my hometown of Chicago. I recently did just that and I’m here today to report some delicious findings in my short visit, which included two lunches, two dinners and a breakfast/brunch.
Yes, I count my trips by the number and categories of the meals I have. Don’t judge me. The food theme of my most recent Chicago trip could easily be, “something old and something new,” as I visited three longtime favorite haunts and one terrific new restaurant.
First, a word or two about Al’s and Lou Malnati’s. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Chicago food is familiar with these two culinary stalwarts. Al’s was our first stop after picking up our rental car at Midway Airport and making the lovely (kidding) trip up Interstate 55 into downtown. I had to get my Italian Beef fix, and since my favorite beef place, Luke’s, was way out in the Northwest Suburbs and I find Portillo’s beefs to be a bit on the greasy side, Al’s was the logical choice.
One beef/sausage combo (juicy, no peppers) and a split order of fries later, I was a happy camper right back in my Chicago food mode.
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The evening provided another iconic Chicago food fix as we made a trip to Lou Malnati’s. We were in the ’burbs, so we couldn’t go to the original, but I’ve always found them to be pretty darned consistent. That was certainly the case at the Malnati’s we ate at in Oak Park. My daughter and I each had the personal pan versions, and I convinced my wife to try their new thin crust (new to me anyway). They were all delicious and I was two for two in my hometown dining experiences.
I’m not much of a breakfast guy, so I opted out of that and waited for lunch with no doubts of my destination — Pizzeria Via Stato in the Embassy Suites Hotel, right in the heart of downtown. I was first introduced to the Roman-style pizza offerings of Chef/Partner David DiGregorio several years ago while filming an episode of my television show, “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I started with the grilled octopus and fingerling potatoes, one of my favorite appetizer dishes anywhere in the world. If you’ve ever found octopus to be rubbery and have avoided ordering it because of that, have DiGregorio whip you up his version. It is life-changing.
After the octopus, I wasn’t at all hungry, but I wasn’t leaving without a pizza as DiGregorio’s pies are my absolute favorite this side of Italy. Thin and crispy with just the right amount of toppings, they were a revelation to me. I could only eat half of my Italian Sausage and mushroom version, but that was enough. I was sated.
It took me eight hours to get hungry again, but I did it! That’s just the way I roll. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I managed to save the best for last. Our meal for our last night in Chicago was at Osteria Langhe, an amazing restaurant dedicated to the food and wine of the Langhe region of Piedmont, Italy. The restaurant is co-owned by a longtime friend of mine, Aldo Zaninotto, a Belgian-Italian wine and food lover and expert.
There were five of us at dinner, which gave us the chance to a huge chunk of the delicious menu. I couldn’t possibly list and describe everything that passed our lips, but here are some of the culinary highlights:
▪ Plin-hand-pinched ravioli with parmesan, thyme, and butter. It sounded great, but honestly, it was better than it sounded.
▪ Carne Cruda-hand-cut raw Piedmontese beef served with a cured egg. This was my first time tasting Piedmontese beef, which is highly prized and praised. I can’t say enough good things about it. This Piedmontese version of steak tartare was fantastic.
▪ Cinghiale-braised wild boar ribs and bacon Brussels sprouts served in a rosemary Dijon beer jus. I’ve had Cinghiale many times in Tuscany, but Cinghiale ribs were a first for me, and they did not disappoint.
I can’t say enough good things about Langhe as the food, the service, and the ambiance were all exemplary. Zaninotto, who plays the role of the host and sommelier, has never seemed happier. I can see why. Langhe is a great addition to the already great Chicago dining scene. I can’t wait to go back again for my next hometown dining experience.
Dave Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.