(Chicago, IL) — It’s HeFed’s birthday weekend! After months of depressing cold, snow, wind and sketchy commutes, it’s finally time to kick back and enjoy a long weekend in Chicago. Luckily, the weather decides to cooperate. We train it into the city, then cab it to the hotel before scooting off to Purple Pig for a decadent lunch. The sun is shining afterward, so we stroll around and do some shopping before our OpenTable dinner reservation at La Madia...
What better way to kick off our first dinner than with pizza! And not just any kind of pizza, an upscale wood-fired variety. La Madia is ranked highly on OpenTable, having won a diners’ choice award this year. I’ve already investigated the menu and know Juliet will find something she likes. I even have predictions on what she’ll want to order.
The interior is cozy, bright and lively. To the right is a well-lit bar. Straight ahead, past tables and booths, is an open air kitchen where the staff jokes around and moves quickly to fill orders. Back and to the left is another dining room. It reminds me of the modern eateries we’ve visited in Barcelona. We are shown to one of the booths near the kitchen. Our server is mostly all business, with the harried good humor of someone who is expected to turn tables quickly but tries to be a good host.
Juliet’s in the mood for vino, so I let her order us a bottle of red. She selects a medium-bodied, less expensive Rosso Di Montalcino from Castiglion Del Bosco. It’s more fruit forward than we usually drink (preferring the heavy tannins found in bold reds), but should go nicely with food.
Speaking of food, I can see her eyes light up as she catches that one starter item I know she’ll want: Oven-Roasted Globe Artichokes. Ever since our trip to Italy, we’ve been chasing the artichoke dragon...with varied results. Making them at home never seemed to turn out right, and most restaurants seemed to lack one quality or another. But La Madia nails it. Only the first two layers are too stiff to chew; beyond that, the meat slides off satisfyingly. Dipped in either the tart mignonette or tangy honey mustard, the salt-encrusted artichoke approaches perfection. I scarf down the heart with happy abandon.
We decide to get two pizzas to share. Although I would have laid money she would order the Taleggio & 3-Hour Roasted Grapes pie, she surprises me by picking Housemade Fennel Sausage & Sweet Onions. The base is lightly seasoned tomato sauce and it’s topped with mozzarella. Classic tastes, all around, with just a slight kick from the sausage. The dough is simple, fresh, and explodes in yeasty goodness when you get a mouthful of red wine to wash it down. I order the Housemade Lamb Sausage pizza, with fresno peppers, Caciocavallo cheese, and mint pesto.
Blizzam!!! That’s about the only non-word I can conjure to represent the explosion of tantalizing tastes. The lamb is greasy-sweet (in a good way) that marries with the cool mint pesto in a springtime wedding of trumpet blaring celebration. Then the spicy peppers assert themselves, all hot and bothered on a honeymoon of sheep’s milk. This easily ascends to one of my favorite pies of all time.
One espresso later, we’re ready to pay up and head back to the hotel.
I’m ambivalent about hitting a pizza place for dinner. Between our favorite pizza place in Kalamazoo (Bilbo’s whole wheat crust is to die for) and a few local gems here in St. Joe, I can have great pizza on a regular basis. And I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share of deep dish Chicago pies over the years, so I don’t really see the point. But La Madia also has a few pasta dishes, some yummy sounding salads, an impressive wine list, and an appetizer I’m just dying to try.
Before we’ve even walked through the door, I’ve decided to order the Oven-Roasted Globe Artichokes with two dipping sauces. I adore artichokes in pretty much any form and these do not fail to please. They’re slightly smoky and charred at the edges from the intense heat of the ovens. There’s something ritualistic about eating an artichoke...peeling off each leaf and running it over your teeth to extract the juicy flesh, in anticipation of the tender heart waiting at the center. I’ve never been a big fan of mignonette sauce because it’s so darn runny. I dunk my leaves deep into the ramekin to capture the garlic, lemon zest, and spices that rest on the bottom. The flavors are good, but I enjoy the mustard sauce better. It’s sweet and tangy, making a perfect foil for the salty, earthen artichoke.
My plan was to order pasta, but as the servers pass I notice the plates are ginormous. Now, I’m no wallflower when it comes to a heaping bowl of pappardelle or gnocchi, but after an indulgent lunch (we’ve taken to hitting one of our favorites, Purple Pig, whenever we arrive in Chicago) I doubt my ability to take on that kind of noodle challenge.
The pizzas are slightly larger than “personal sized” ones, but the crust is thin and we agree to each order one variety and share. We’re a half glass each into our bottle of ‘09 Rosso di Montalcino, which I ordered knowing Jeremy would go for a pizza with red sauce. However, he surprises me by ordering a white variety—the Housemade Lamb Sausage, Fresno Peppers, Caciocavallo Cheese & Mint Pesto pie. I decide to go red with the Housemade Fennel Sausage & Sweet Onions with Mozzarella Cheese.
My pizza is sweet and mild, studded with sausage and gooey mozzarella. They use a heavy hand with the fennel, which delights me. I briefly consider gobbling up the whole pie before Jeremy can nab a slice, but then I try his. The lamb is savory, the cheese earthy but not overly strong, the peppers give slight heat, while the mint pesto adds a verdant edge. How is it we both got sausage pizzas but they’re so very different? We go back and forth, trying one slice of each and debating which is better. The one thing we can agree on is the wine works well with both. It disappears all too quickly. Not so for the pizza, though; after eating our fill, we have to leave a few slices of each behind.