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72 Hours In Chicago

  • September 9, 2011
 I was in Chicago once – eons ago when dinosaurs walked the earth I think. Come to think of it, the only thing I remember about that visit when I was six years old – other than my aunt’s wedding – was the Field Museum, where today you really can see dinosaurs that move.
This time around I had people to meet and things to see that didn’t include triceratops and T-Rex. A lot of my three-day trip with my friend Lilli involved exploring Chicago’s food scene, and you can read about that here. This post will take you along for the non-food part (yes I do more than just eat), starting with a relaxing boat trip highlighting the architectural wonders of the windy city. It was a great introduction to Chicago’s diverse architecture and a good way to get a sense of where things were.
Later on the trip, we explored on foot some of what we had seen on the water, including the Chicago Tribune building, a neo-Gothic building with lots of beautiful tracery near the front entrance.
Embedded near the base the building are myriad stones, bricks and artifacts that were collected from all over the world. I felt right at home when I saw the piece of stone from Princeton University.
You can’t help noticing the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower). It’s the highest building in North America, and stands 1,450 feet high.
You get a great view of the city from the top. On a really clear day, you can see across Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.
A couple of years ago, these glass balcony boxes were added to the building, allowing visitors to step out and look 1,343 feet below to the street. Yours truly had to go for it, and honestly, it’s not as scary as it might seem.


But if you’d rather stay at ground level, there’s plenty to see and do. Take the time to head to the beach – right in the city. Except for the lack of waves, you might think you’re at the ocean rather than Lake Michigan.
Walk the magnificent mile along Michigan Ave. and you’ll find not just trendy shops, but sidewalks brimming with beautiful plantings, and even small fountains in some cases.


One thing I definitely didn’t think I’d see in downtown Chicago was this crenellated building that looks like it belongs in Disneyworld. Turns out it was built as a water tower in 1869 but now serves as one of the city’s official visitor’s centers.
You’ll find public sculpture along the sidewalks too, including these – the top left is by Picasso, the large one at right is by Jean Dubuffet, and the Marilyn sculpture (temporary until Spring) at lower left is by New Jersey’s own Seward Johnson.
But the one that really captured my attention was “Cloud Gate” – more affectionally known as “the bean,” created by Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor.

It’s located in Millennium Park, a really fun place to spend some time. It’s where Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion also is located, and you even might be able to hear a concert while you’re there, as we did.

One of my favorite things about the city has to be the Crown Fountain, also located in Millennium Park. It’s an interactive sculpture that uses light-emitting diodes on its glass-bricked towers to feature the constantly changing faces of local residents. Water spurts out of the mouth periodically, entertaining all the children playing there and the people watching, including me. Click on the video and see if it doesn’t make you smile too.
Here’s a nighttime view of the fountain, but it’s never the same twice.
While we’re on the subject of fountains, you’ve got to visit Buckingham Fountain too – a beautiful pink marble fountain that’s one of the largest in the world.

When we walked into the Chicago Cultural Center, which has a glass dome designed by Louis Tiffany (the largest in the world) we thought we’d entered a concert hall. A talented pianist named Clara Min was rehearsing for a performance that we were sorry we would have to miss. The interior of the building was stunning, with glittering mosaics everywhere.

My very favorite place in Chicago has got to be the Art Institute. I spent three hours there one afternoon, but was wishing for at least three more. It’s got a fantastic collection, and is the major reason I definitely want to come back to Chicago.
Here’s only a smattering of the art I saw – clockwise from top left –  Renoir, Seurat, Sorolla, Monet, Pisarro and Degas.
      It was hard to tear myself away from the impressionists, but there was so much more to see – just a few more examples to entice – clockwise from left – Singer Sargeant, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Magritte and Severini.
Next time I go back, I’ll plan a whole day. And it will be during the season for the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Symphonic Orchestra too. Riccardo Muti, save a seat for me.

The winner of the Blue Willow tea set giveaway – chosen with a random number generator – is Barbara of Dish N’That. Congratulations. It’ll be on its way to you tomorrow.

Chicago Chow-Down

  • September 6, 2011

Chicago deep-dish pizza – if ever a city was linked to a dish, it’s this one. I would have been remiss in not ordering it on a trip to the windy city a couple of weeks ago. Wonderful, yes, and every bit as filling as I remembered it too. Sorry Chicago, I like your pizza, but Neapolitan style-pizza is still my favorite. The Chicago culinary experience is about so much more than pizza though. From the casual pizza joint Pizano’s (where the above pizza was sampled) to the ultra-elegant restaurant Spiaggia, and Greek and Mexican cuisine in between, I sampled lots of good food with my good friend Lilli during our three-day visit.

Dinner at Spiaggia was high on my list, ever since touring Acetaia San Giacomo (I wrote about the place  here), where Andrea Bezzecchi makes his divinely delicious aged balsamic vinegar in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. Andrea sells the precious liquid to Spiaggia, in addition to New York’s Le Bernardin and other high end restaurants as well. The elegant Italian restaurant was also one of the the Obama’s favorite spots for date nights when they lived in Chicago.

Spiaggia’s beautifully inlaid marble floor wowed me immediately as we entered the restaurant lobby, and the view from our table, overlooking Lake Michigan, was lovely as well.

Overall, the food was very good, and there were some real winners among the dishes we sampled, including the best dish of the night – my primo piatto – a raviolo filled with crescenza cheese and braised goat meat in a fragrant sauce surrounded by mushrooms (bottom left photo)

But some of the dishes were less than top notch, which is not what you expect when paying the kind of prices charged here. For example, a primo piatto of three tortelli d’erbette (top left photo) filled with swiss chard and ricotta was bland and under seasoned. This dish is a specialty of the region in Italy where my relatives live and I’ve eaten it many times there. This version fell short. For $28, you’d think the chef could have added more than three measly drops of Andrea’s balsamic vinegar to liven up the flavor.

My main course of halibut (top row middle photo) was overcooked and hard around the edges, inexcusable when the cost is $54 for the portion.

On the plus side, the waitress let me taste a couple of wines before I found one I wanted to order, and the free refills of San Pellegrino all night long were an uncommonly pleasant surprise.  We also loved our antipasto selection. My friend Lilli and I couldn’t help ordering the same thing – wood roasted artichokes with mozzarella di bufala, date puree, and zucchini (center bottom row – $26 each).  The basil-flecked bread and homemade bread sticks were noteworthy too, as were the complimentary chocolates and candied orange slices offered when we finished.


 Lunch at Pizano’s was more humble Italian food, including the above mentioned deep-dish Chicago-style pizza.

 Preceded by a platter of perfectly prepared fried calamari.

 We were craving something light for the following night’s dinner when we headed to Greektown and a restaurant called Santorini, that just oozed rustic charm. Nothing special about the grilled fish-in fact it was overcooked – but the platter of rapini and the grilled octopus were just what the doctor ordered following the heavy pizza and fried calamari lunch.
A visit to one of Rick Bayliss’ restaurants was on my must-do list and we were lucky to get into Frontera Grill. After our lunch there, we both wished we could transport the place back East.

Our favorite item – not just that meal but perhaps on the entire trip – was a trio of ceviche dishes with different fish, each one presented in a martini glass – some with mangoes, some with grapefruit, some with avocados and other fresh and flavorful ingredients. 
But my favorite meal out was noteworthy not for the food, but for the company. That was the night we ate at Quartino’s – a casual Italian restaurant that offers typical large portions of Italian-American food.

The food was just average, but the company – well that was exceptional. Joining Lilli and me were a blogger friend I’ve been wanting to meet for a long time – Marie of Proud Italian Cook (second from left). She brought along her friend Mary Alice and the four of us had a wonderful evening getting to know each other in person, after years of emailing.  Now if only she could find her way to the East coast so we could show her what New York food is all about! We’re waiting for you Marie.

Our eating adventure continued en route home. Lilli and I spotted a Rick Bayless outpost called “Tortas Fronteras” within Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.  It was the perfect place to pick up a sandwich for the plane ride back to New Jersey – a griddle-baked sandwich filled with chicken, avocado, arugula, chihuahua cheese and cilantro cream – all served with a dipping salsa. With airlines cutting out meals on short flights, this was a welcome lunch – and better than any airplane food I’d eaten in the past anyway. Rick Bayless, won’t you please move to New York?

If you still haven’t entered to win the Blue Willow china tea set I offered as a giveaway on my last post, it’s still not too late. I’ll be choosing a winner soon, so click here to leave a message on the blog post no later than Thursday, midnight Eastern time.