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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, March 3

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Restaurant Sat Jun 09 2007

Good Gruel

Adding a bit of culinary class to the underbelly of the Western Blue Line Stop, Vella Café has recently opened as great brunch spot in a somewhat sparse area of the Chicago weekend-daylight-dining scene. Not that Margie’s Candies, Arturo’s and Lazo’s don’t rock in their own gustatory right, but sometimes the morning after requires more than tacos or sundae to get things jumpstarted. Plus, Green Eye is merely steps away and their bartender will call you and all of your friends "lovelies" if you stop by for a hair of the dog before stumbling another few feet to breakfast. Everyone likes being called lovely.

Vella’s panini-centric menu and genesis from sustainable grocer Green City Market's team have been fairly well discussed at this point. So let’s talk about their gruel. Seriously.

A companion on this recent trip ordered the polenta, for the second time in as many meals at Vella. The menu lists it under "Other Yummy Things" and it comes as a colorful plate of golden slices of fried polenta with a sharp cheddar cheese and tomatillo salsa with eggs, all on the splayed slices of a well-roasted poblano pepper. In waiting for the plates to arrive, someone asked what exactly polenta was. Corn flour…corn meal? Corn something? Isn’t it just corn? it corn?

Turns out polenta is indeed one of the most basic of corn-derived staples – cornmeal mush, a porridge made from corn meal, water and maybe a little salt in its most basic form. Italian of origin, it was being enjoyed in ancient Rome as a millet mush (according to the Gourmet cookbook), and then evolved to its more common corn incarnation with the domination of corn on the fertile plains of the New World starting in the mid-1700s. It is a direct descendent of what centuries of eaters have known as gruel. As in, Dickensian orphans, “Please sir, I want some more,” Ebeneezer Scrooge hatefully mumbling into his gruel fireside on Christmas Eve, etc. Apparently Oliver Twist had the right idea, though. Polenta is merely a variation of the same substance of gruel, cooked longer, given a better name, and often dressed up with the addition of cheese, mushrooms or other morsels. The Bleeding Heart Bakery even offers an orange polenta cookie.

So if you’re out and about under the Blue Line and have a hankering for gruel (as one does) Vella promises to deliver the real thing. In a good way.

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Efrat / June 10, 2007 7:32 PM

I think we prefer to call it mamaliga in the transylvanian homeland...

Chris Brunn / June 11, 2007 9:55 PM

I love Vella's tofu and soy chorizo scram. It's tasty, gently spicy and with roasted poblanos, zuchini, corn, scallions in thick savory sauce. It comes with a nice mild green salsa, avocado and a toasted warm tortilla.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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