Fellow Top Chef fans will remember Sarah Grueneberg from season 9, where she was the runner-up to Paul Qui, who dominated the season like few other contestants have done, overshadowing her own skill set – especially when it came to fresh pastas. Chef Grueneberg left Chicago’s Spiaggia about a year ago to open her own place, Monteverde, in Chicago’s West Loop, and I finally got to try it out Friday night (and chat with Sarah herself) while in town for the Under Armour game. It could not have been any more impressive, not just for the pasta but for the quality of everything that went on every plate.
The menu is short but covers a lot of ground, from small plates to a half dozen pastas (three traditional dishes and three of their own creation) to a few substantial mains, and they accommodated me as a solo diner with some smaller portions so I could try more things. I started with the fiore di zucca, fried squash blossoms, a special right now since they’re in season and a very traditional Italian delicacy. The squash blossoms are extremely delicate and usually must be cooked within a day of their harvest; they’re stuffed with ricotta, battered, and fried, in this case with a tempura-like coating and served with a grilled vegetable relish and bright pea hummus underneath it. One was plenty – they’re so rich – but a plate typically contains three for the table. I rarely get to eat these so there was no question I was ordering it, and it met expectations largely because of the ricotta. I assume Monteverde makes their own but if not they’re using some of the best around because the texture is just perfect.
The single best dish I had on the night was the tomato salad, which is Monteverde’s riff on an insalata caprese, here using several kinds of tomatoes, some whole and some blanched and salted; apricot slices; burrata, which is mozzarella wrapped around a filling of cream that was decadent; basil; and za’atar seasoning. The tomatoes were singing – bright, sweet, just a hint of acidity, like they’d been picked an hour before. The best restaurants I’ve ever been to around the U.S. have all had one thing in common: they care about produce enough to get items like these tomatoes. And yes, the burrata was incredible, but it ended up playing second fiddle to the tomatoes.
That salad is one of the piattini or small plates on the menu, along with two other items I tried. The grilled artichoke crostini comes with fontina fonduta (fontina cheese melted with milk and/or cream and Parmiggiano Reggiano to make it into a sauce), more ricotta, a sweet Italian onion called cipolla di tropea, and shaved summer truffle. I had just one piece but the balance was perfect across the various elements because I could still appreciate the quality of the bread underneath, which had a creamy texture on the interior but the hard crust of good old-world recipes.
The other small plate I tried, specifically at Chef Sarah’s suggestion, was the fegattini calabrese, wok-fired chicken livers – yes, wok-fired – with tomato, peperoncino, corn, fava beans, shallot, and polenta ‘fries’ around the outside. Sarah said customers compare it to an upscale chicken parmesan, which fits with the tomato/chicken combination, but I also found it reminded me of the Ecuadorian dish lomo saltado, where steak is served in a stir-fried dish with French fries cooked in the same pot or skillet. It’s a true one-pot meal, with your protein, starch, and lots of vegetables within it, hearty like a winter stew, bringing richness from the livers and unexpected sweetness from the corn and the polenta.
Choosing one pasta dish at a restaurant known already for its pastas was not simple, but sitting at the bar I could see the two chefs making the pasta dishes to order, including the “twin” ravioli, where each piece contains two pockets with fillings, one with eggplant, pinenuts, and more ricotta, the other with lamb sausage, yogurt (very little), and charred onion. They’re served in a piquant red sauce with olive oil and a crushed pepper mix, although there’s just enough sauce to coat the top of the dumplings. The pasta itself remains the focus of the dish, as it’s an incredibly strong dough (they use whole eggs and egg yolks) that the pasta chefs roll out very thin for the dumplings; I’ve made pasta at home a bunch and I doubt I’ve gotten close to this kind of dough strength before, because if I rolled anything that thin it would tear. Of the two fillings, I preferred the lamb sausage and onion, which sort of gave the dish an inside-out pasta and meatballs connotation.
I tweeted some pics while I was at the restaurant and several of you said I had to try the cannoli (but to leave the gun). Monteverde makes its cannolis in-house and fills them to order with sweetened ricotta, dipping one end in dark chocolate bits and the other in bright-green Sicilian pistachios, with a painted swipe of chocolate sauce and some bitter orange bits (candied, I think) on the plate. I grew up strongly disliking cannolis, because most Italian bakeries on Long Island didn’t make their own shells, which meant they had all the texture and flavor of fried wonton strips, and used lower-quality ricotta that gave the filling a cheesy flavor rather than a sweet one. Monteverde does it all from scratch and it shows, and the part with the chocolate bits brought me back to eating straciatella (chocolate chip) gelato in my last trip to Italy in 1999.
As you’d expect Monteverde has a long wine list, but I’m not much of an oenophile and went for their cocktail menu instead. They do a take on one of my all-time favorite cocktails, the negroni, using mezcal in place of the gin and Luxardo bitter in place of traditional Campari (although Luxardo and Campari are very similar, with Luxardo bringing a more bitter and less sweet profile). It was a good way to riff on a classic, preserving the essential features, with the bitter flavors out front, with a subtle change underneath I doubt I would have identified as mezcal if I hadn’t known ahead of time.
So, I had a pretty good meal at Monteverde and while I did receive some special treatment I would have said the same things about the food anyway. I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys high-quality food, let alone high-quality Italian food, walking away unsatisfied. There’s enough diversity on the menu for just about anybody (I think you could be gluten-free here pretty easily, in fact) and every dish I had was just one bright flavor after another. I’ll certainly be going back.
The rest of my trip to Chicago featured places I’ve been before; I had coffee at Intelligentsia, as I always do when I’m in Chicago, and then stopped the Tortas Frontera location at O’Hare on my rebooked flight out (my original flight on Southwest out of Midway was cancelled). Frontera is one of the best airport food options in the country, with tortas, a pressed Mexican sandwich on spongy telera bread, made to order inside of ten minutes. I tried a new option this time, the vegetarian torta with mushrooms, black beans, arugula, and goat cheese, because I had to atone for my gluttony the night before. I’ve never had a bad sandwich at Tortas Frontera but I do find their sandwiches with meat a little heavy, whereas this turned out to be just right, especially since my flight was delayed over two hours by thunderstorms and I was on the plane for close to five hours in total.