March 2018

Chicagoland Culinary Reviews Part 3

By |2018-03-15T20:00:42-05:00March 14th, 2018|Chicagoland Culinary Reviews, Feature, food|

This year A Toast to Travel is starting a new search, for the most authentic Italian experiences in the Chicagoland culinary world!

Part 3- Vinci

Vinci is the perfect place to stop for an evening meal. Located on the north side of Chicago the establishment is very inviting. The décor favors the color yellow with golden tones. The aesthetic brings you the feel of the Tuscan countryside without ever leaving the American Midwest. In fact, there is an effort being made to refurbish the interior with a more rustic design. The original tables are being replaced by all wood furniture. My eyes were drawn to the light fixtures, which have been designed to look like twigs that have been twisted into an ornate novelty. The walls are decorated with beautiful murals. As an artist, I was quite drawn to the line drawings of hands near the entrance. It appears to be drawn by charcoal, paying expert attention to line and form, and is quite beautiful. I was greeted by Mr. Richard Russo, the general manager at Vinci, this gentleman has been with the establishment for almost ten years. He states the familiar quality of staff; most stay longer than five years. That says something about the quality this company holds itself to, that even its employees keep coming back for more. In fact, most of Vinci’s business is found in their regular return clients.  Vinci has a significant fan base and local following.

We were treated to a full menu experience. Richard was most happy to answer any questions and make recommendations for the evening. We began with the Antipasti Vinci, which is a sample platter of salame, stewed calamari, zucchini scapece, pecorino cheese, and giardiniera.  Richard explained the delicious food on our sample platter as the dish was presented, while we drank delicious pinot grigio.   The stewed calamari was excellently prepared, easy to chew, and slightly salty. It was an experience I will never forget.

We enjoyed the dining atmosphere.  There was a group that sat next to us, regulars at Vinci, who had nothing but praise to share about the restaurant.  They were also leaving for their Italy vacations the next day.  Vinci, like A Toast to Travel’s wine and culinary experiences in Italy, offers guests a chance to live like a local and enjoy authentic Italian food and wine. A Toast to Travel’s all-inclusive experiences includes the opportunity of cooking in Tuscany as well as exploring the Tuscan countryside. A restaurant like Vinci is designed after our own heart offering their guests a vacation in Italy without going too far from home.

The main course, however, was its own trip.  We ordered our Secondi, the Chicken Saltimbocca and the Grilled Hen.  The Secondi were paired with a deep, full bodied red, Brunello di Montalcino.   Perfectly seasoned, the juicy, grilled hen was better than I could have imagined. I am a lover of chicken entrees, and as a picky eater, it can be hard for me to find a dish so mouthwatering. Vinci succeeded.  Not to neglect the Chicago Saltimbocca.  “Saltimbocca” means to jump in your mouth in Italian and with the generous, delicious prosciutto wrapped all around the chicken, it sure did.

We finished dinner with a slice of Tiramisu. The coffee taste was sweet and complementary.  The perfect Tiramisu to end the perfect evening.

Our evening with Vinci was excellent. Thank you to Richard Russo for his service and hospitality. Take a tour of Vinci which will feel like Italy tours!  There is no doubt in my mind that Vinci is an Authentic Italian Experience in Chicago. When you visit, make sure you take #atoasttothegoodlife.

Part 2- Vinci

Chicagoland Culinary Reviews Part 2

By |2018-03-14T18:41:42-05:00March 4th, 2018|Chicagoland Culinary Reviews, Feature, food, hidden gems|

Pelago Chicago 1
Pelago-Chicago 2
Pelago-Chicago 3

This year A Toast to Travel is starting a new search, for the most authentic Italian experiences in the Chicagoland culinary world!

Part 2- Pelago Ristorante

Chef Mauro Mafrici is a tall man, with broad shoulders. He is jovial and chooses his words with the same care he’s put into the establishment of Pelago Ristorante. This exclusive gem is tucked away behind the world famous John Hancock Tower, and that’s the way Chef Mauro likes it. In fact, he prefers catering to his guests in this intimate setting.

Chef Mauro has been cooking since he was 14, originally from Italy; his 40 years of experiences have taken him a great number of places. It was actually in New York City that he met his lovely wife, Kimberly. She’s the architect in charge of Pelago’s design. There on a sky blue barstool, I sat taking a moment to appreciate the space she’d envisioned. The entire room is a cozy rectangle, accessed through a blue glass bubble entry way.  The bar is on the west side and is the first sight one has upon entering. The same blue glass is used to divide the room’s upper and lower levels. The chairs at each table are also blue, and they are accompanied by bright blue purse stools. The stools are a custom adopted from the old wives tale that putting one’s purse on the ground is unlucky financially. The choice in color can be correlated to the Chef’s focus on seafood cuisine. Large windows let a lot of light into the space, and the blue glass partition keeps the room open. This design makes the smaller space feel large and airy.

We were treated to a Chef’s tasting. The beginning appetizers were brought, and we sipped Prosecco in pairing. The Burrata is made fresh and is absolutely delicious–the fresh Italian buffalo milk cheese’s delicious flavor seems to explode in one’s mouth, the fresh herbs complimenting it perfectly. It’s one of the best we’ve had outside of Rome and Italy vacations.  The Risotto tasting followed. We were tempted with three variations saffron, vegetable and tomato basil. The Saffron was al dente, and tasted fresh from the streets of Italy herself. The Ruffino Chianti red wine paired with the final plater. Chianti, Italy is where we, at A Toast to Travel, take our guests for all-inclusive culinary and wine experiences and Italy tours and vacation packages.

The afternoon was passed in pleasant conversation, we took our time tasting each dish, and appreciating the ambiance of the restaurant. The room was impeccable. Behind me, on the wall, hung a magnificent oil painting which when looked at straight on may trick you. The optical illusion of depth is created by a black negative space that contrasts the extremely fine attention to detail in the positive foreground. It appears that if one wished, they could simply reach in and pluck the lobster from the display in the painting.

The dessert sampling finished our meal leaving us with a very sweet impression of Pelago Ristorante. The service was impeccable and faithfully attentive, which served to create an intimate experience between guest and server, leaving one feeling happy and well cared for. Ultimately, Chef Mauro creates an authentic Italian experience in the heart of Chicago.

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February 2018

Chicagoland Culinary Reviews

By |2018-03-14T18:42:24-05:00February 9th, 2018|Chicagoland Culinary Reviews, Feature, food, hidden gems|

Piccolo Sogno1

This year A Toast to Travel is starting a new search, for the most authentic Italian experiences in the Chicagoland culinary world!

Part 1- Piccolo Sogno

Our first stop is Piccolo Sogno, this little dream of Tony Priolo and Ciro Longbardo, greets you at the door with a first impression you won’t soon forget. I was treated to a first class seat at one of the most tasteful restaurants in Chicago. And don’t just take my word for it, take Italy’s! A placard from Ospitalità Italiana hangs on the left hand side of the main entryway, proudly displayed next to the front desk.

I was greeted by a deep blue wall, and I welcomed its immersive calming embrace. Contrasted beautifully by choice of art, the room greets you and so too do the smiling faces of the staff. Abel the manager, was quick to greet me, he had us check our coats with a sweet smiling attendant, from there leading me through the establishment and to the table. After showing me the table, he asked me if I’d like a tour of the rest, including the kitchen. I, of course, was excited to accept; I left my companion for the evening at the table and followed Abel through the main room camera at the ready. I was here for only the best food, so of course I wanted the best photos.

All pasta served and gelato consumed by guests at Piccolo Sogno is made in house. The Antipasti can be found delightfully displayed when you first enter the kitchen; a large red meat slicer sits to the right hand side. All Prosciutto consumed in house is sliced on this machine. Fresh and salty, the Prosciutto is chewy and easy to pull apart, and an excellent way to start your meal if you like ham. Another excellent choice is the Caprese salad, tomatoes and mozzarella served to enchant the taste buds and the meal has only just begun.

Another prime feature of the kitchen is its wood burning oven, its gapping maw, fire licking away on the inside tugs on my ancestral heartstrings, the Italian in me appreciates such attention to detail. At the table, I am greeted once more but this time by Italia’s very own bottled stars. The N.V Prosecco, Alexa is bubbly, and gives me that cherished oh so tingly sensation, and yet somehow there is heaviness here among the stars. It’s a full body that can be appreciated and considered very, very smooth. Grissini and Focaccia and Filone are given as choices of bread before dinner at the table, I appreciated the light and airy Filone the best, but my companion liked the Focaccia best. I found it to be a strong flavor, I wasn’t quite prepared for.

There are excellent guest relations here; Abel is frequently seen throughout the evening interacting with guests, especially as it gets busier around 6:30 when the restaurant hits the evening rush, a charismatic smile never leaving his lips. I believe this joviality is made possible by the excellent staff relations that exist here as well. Abel has been here 8 to 9 years, to him, “it feels like a family.”

Alberto our servers checks on us often, and takes our dinner order of Tagliolini con Funghi Misti e Tartufo Nero and Ravioli “Piccolo Sogno”. I was promised the perfect pairing of wine with my meal, and Alberto our server for the night has the perfect suggestion. The evening is meant to be enjoyed and I found myself observing the rest of the room. I noticed a few birthdays being celebrated, the birthday candle is lit discretely for the table’s enjoyment. It is personal and private. My ideal birthday treat. The entire setting’s aesthetic can be expressed as intimate. This effect is particularly created by the lighting. It is dark, the room is outlined in a cool white glow but the main source of light is each occupied table’s single white candle.

The red wine, a 2011 Chianti Classico, Casaloste, paired perfectly with the Tagliolini! I found myself quite enthralled by the savory flavor of the mushroom and pasta pairing. I can be quite picky, but the flavor of those al dente noodles made even this palate jovial. My companion and I shared meals, and agreed that it surpassed the Ravioli. Now, this Ravioli has won against Bobby Flay, so this is high praise for the Tagliolini!

Upon Alberto’s insistence we finished dinner with the Tortino di Gianduja. The first bite of this chocolate delight will send your eyes back into your head. Warm chocolate syrup encased in a light chocolate cake shell sprinkled with powdered sugar. This is accompanied by a single scoop of hazelnut gelato. The pairing is well chosen. We take coffee with dessert.

I’d like to thank Piccolo Sogno for an excellent evening. The service is friendly, and the food is tasteful, the experience is authentic.

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