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Event Wed Sep 24 2008

Mangia Italia

This past weekend, Italy took over Navy Pier (well, the Festival Hall anyway... well, a portion of one of the Festival Halls...) as the Italian American Chamber of Commerce Midwest threw a three-day party featuring food, fashion and commerce of the motherland. But let's focus on the food. Because honestly, when you think of Italy, do you think of massive Fiat-produced yellow construction vehicles? NO! You think of pasta! Rivers of marinara sauce and oceans of wine. Mountains of bread. Vistas of cheese. And spewing volcanoes of liquid...organic honey. Why not? Though try telling that to whoever set up the entryway featuring massive Fiat-produced yellow construction vehicles. Ah well.

In any case, the Italian Style Expo brought together plenty of delicious representatives of Italian food, including both producers and local distributors, so patrons could first sample the imported wares, and then jot down directions to their local purveyor.

More on the proper way to taste-test olive oil, great Italian cheeses that aren't parmesan, and more truffles than you could shake a stick at, after the fold.

Gnocchi demonstrationWe had originally intended to stop by a workshop on the Mediterranean diet and foods from the Lazio region, but couldn't find where this event was supposed to be taking place, and settled for a gnocchi demonstration at the Mangia, Inc. table, where curious bystanders pressed close to watch the entire production from combining dry goods to shaping to saucing with various Carmelina tomato products (a much better presentation of red sauces than the lowly table of various degrees of processed tomatoes slightly off to one side). We also tried a small cucumber bite with a cannellini bean mousse piped into a cute canape, which was surprisingly flavorful, and had the added benefit of an available recipe.

Prosciutto on the slicerWhile certainly tasty, a single gnocchi and cucumber nibble was not going to sustain our hunger for Italian goodness, and we promptly wandered over to the first of many cheese tables. La Mozzarella is a local Chicago distributor that of course specializes in creamy, briny mozzarella di bufala (from only the finest Italian water buffalo milk, or so I'm told), as well as various Italian preserves, oils, vinegars, dry spices and at least one monster hunk of prosciutto from the Academia Barilla.

Lara Postiglione from La Mozzarella was kind enough to lead us through a tasting of pecorino cheeses with accompaniments of spicy fig jelly and balsamic pear compote, as well as a tissue-papery slice of prosciutto that was some of the best cured pork I've had since jamon iberico hit our shores a few months back. This, despite being not quite up to Mario Rizzotti's standards of room temperature. Rizzotti, a manager at Academia Barilla, clammed up when I asked him to repeat something I'd barely overhead about a product on display being a favorite of Oprah's, but made it up to us with some intensive instruction on the proper way to test an olive oil. Think of it as a cross between doing a shot and tasting a wine -- pour a small amount of oil into a shot glass, wrap one hand around and one hand over and swirl to warm the oil. "You get a tomato that smells like nothing, what does it taste like? Nothing. Same with olive oil," instructed Rizzotti, as we inhaled the bright, summery scent of the oil, smelling exactly of sun-warmed tomatoes on the vine. Other oil varieties might smell like grass clippings or soil, he noted, but they should all smell like something. The next step of course was to sip the oil, and trill air through it as you would a wine, if you're a snooty wine drinker. I was shocked at the slow burn in my throat from the oil, which reverberated for quite some time, its pungency due to the freshness of the olives according to Rizzotti.

More artisan cheeseThe logical step toward curing that front-of-throat heat was to douse it with cheese, and the phalanx of tables under the local Isola Imports banner were happy to oblige. Far beyond simple paremsan or pecorino, we sampled hollowed wheels of piave, funky scoops of gorgonzola, oozing pats of robiola, and firm slices of ricotta flavored with lemon and chocolate. A trio of artisan cheeses particularly caught my attention with their woodsy looking rinds of grass and bark -- apparently due to an aging process bound in the left-over stems and leaves from making barollo wine. The cheese mongers, disappointingly, were much more concerned with refilling toothpick dishes and cutting up bread than answering questions, and the kind of cheese and other details remain a mystery.

There was much more to sample, from Bio-Gold organic raw honey and canned artichokes (served by painfully adorable Italian men who didn't speak much English beyond "honey" and "organic"), to pistachio and hazelnut butter, to spring water with a slice of lime. Kind of a whole meal, actually, when all was said and done, served entirely on plastic spoons and toothpicks, and with more truffles than I've ever seen bandied about in public. All in all, a good day at Navy Pier, and an extremely enjoyable reminder of the joys of Italian cuisine beyond spaghetti and meatballs. As for the construction equipment, well...I'm just glad they kept it away from the wine section.

 
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Marie / September 26, 2008 10:02 PM

Excellent post!

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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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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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