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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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Tuesday, August 9

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« Show Your Beans Fruit Salad with Shiso »

Review Sun Aug 09 2009

Company, Clout and Calamari

Sometimes the most interesting part of a meal is the company. The conversation with friends, the revelations between courses, the camaraderie of the table... They're important ingredients for a good meal out. Trattoria Isabella, located low in a passel of high rises just west of the pavement delta where Milwaukee bottoms out into Wacker Drive, relies on these ingredients perhaps more than most restaurants. More after the jump.

It's a lovely space, though hardly the expected commercial enterprise in the area. Nestled into the ground floor of the Terrapin Properties building, Trattoria Isabella has settled into an airy, quiet space with an impressive dining-room wine collection, but the real interest is just outside--not a single diner was seated inside on my visit. The restaurant has carved an improbable patio out of an otherwise corporate plaza, stringing low-watt colored lights between leafy trees to create a charming nook for al fresco enjoyment. Views of half-lit condo complexes and the tips of the downtown towers vie with the clear blue of the quiet city-night sky. Candles on the tables and a respectfully low-lit bar with two relatively unobtrusive flat-screens are the only light source beyond the colored baubles above, and yet the patio never gets too murky in the dark. It would be a peaceful spot to sip a coffee or a glass of wine and perhaps share some appetizers with friends before venturing elsewhere in the night.

Mayor Daley seemed to think so, at least on the evening I dined at the restaurant last week. Just as I was finishing my after-dinner coffee, Da Mare arrived at a table not three feet from mine, filling just about the only empty spot on the bustling patio. Our waiter disappeared to tend to these high-wattage newcomers, a bit frustrating as it happened to be the same moment we were trying to leave--but returned at least twice more after getting his star table situated to check on us. The service was lovely, overall, from the warm welcome to our media dinner from general manager Paolo (who seemed to know almost everyone dining out that night, stopping for cheek-kisses and handshakes all over the patio) to the offer of another cup of coffee from an observant bus boy on his way back to the kitchen.

In many cases, the company around your table contributes to the flavors you experience in the dishes before you. A forgettable meal can become unforgettable if seasoned with the right stories. Trattoria Isabella's entree-oriented Italian menu seems in need of this kind of spice, sadly. Asparagus and prosciutto salad was tasty, studded with blue cheese, kalamata olives and a surprising mix of giardiniera-style peppers--but not particularly remarkable. An appetizer of peppers and sausage is a nice homage to south side Chicago's classic cuisine, but arrived with the meat slightly dry, even with the assistance of a buttery rosemary sauce. Four-cheese ravioli had a nicely balanced brown-butter sauce with only a slight kick of sweetness at the end, but the Vitello Isabella, sort of a veal saltimbocca meets eggplant parmesan, was overcooked and overwhelmed by its own sage.

Trattoria Isabella has been around for about a year, and may still be finding its gastronomical footing, having already carved out a lovely niche with surprising atmosphere. The interior of the restaurant sports a brand-new brick pizza oven, just steps from the bar and artistically domed with an earth-toned mosaic. As soon as the new ventilation is approved, they're jumping on the brick-oven bandwagon--and judging from the clientele, it'll be fired up in no time. Until then, for literal and political stargazing, Trattoria Isabella is worth a try. Who knows what stories you might take home with you.

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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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