Anatomy of a Wine Dinner
Italy produces and exports more wine than any other country. There are more vintages (a year or period of origin) in Italy than there are in any other country. Terroir (climate, elevation, terrain) varies, and the wines from one area won’t be the same as the wines from another region, even if they’re made with the same kind of grapes.
The Italian Village Restaurants cellar 20,000 bottles of wine. Bottle prices begin at $40 a bottle and top out at $4600. More than 1500 vintages are included in the mix. For anyone interested in exploring Italian wines, the Italian Village is top tier.
While dinners featuring superb wines paired with equally good food are a regular event at the restaurant, the recent $500 per person dinner featuring Sassicaia wines from the Tenuta San Guido Winery in Tuscany raised a few eyebrows. But as it turns out, the dinner was a bargain.
So what makes an expensive wine expensive? According to Jared Gelband, the wine director for all three of The Italian Village Restaurants, the list includes the quality of the grapes, the type of wood used to make the barrels, the age of the vine, availability- and that’s just for starters.
Sassicaia wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes, French varietals that grow well in the region in and around Bolgheri, a town in Tuscany with a terroir similar (but obviously not the same) to the terroir in Bordeaux. Wines made with these grapes are "rich" and full-bodied.
If you’re still in doubt as to the use of the adjective “bargain” to describe the dinner, check out the per-bottle prices on the Tenuta San Guido’s winery’s website. Single bottles of Sassicaia wine sell for upwards of $250, and the guests sampled nine wines. And with wine this good, it's for sure you don't pop in a cork and put the remaining wine in the fridge. So at $500 per person, the dinner was definitely a bargain.
Italian Village Restaurants, 71 W. Monroe St. 312/332-7005
photography by James Vitullo Photography
Anatomy of a Restaurant: The Server
A restaurant is only as good as the sum of its parts. Think about it for a minute or two. The food can be great, but if the restroom isn’t tidy, or the host doesn’t have the correct reservation, or the person bussing the tables clears the dishes too soon or too late, or dozens of other “what ifs,” you may be reluctant to schedule a second visit.
Of all the people working in a restaurant, the server has the most contact time with the guest. A knowledgable server acts as a guide; they’re the go-to when you need advice about what to order and why.
Riley Andrews is a server at City Mouse in the Ace Hotel in the West Loop. Ask her to describe a dish, and she’ll give you a complete run-down. Ask her to pair a cocktail, wine, or beer with the dish, and she’ll come up with a good match.
“My job is all about making sure the guest has a good experience,” Andrews begins. “There’s an interaction, a connection between the diner and the server that’s crucial to the dining experience.”
Andrews, who’s in her late twenties, began working as a server when she was a teenager. Right from the start, she knew she wanted to work in the hospitality industry.
“I’m a professional,” she says. “I play an important role in the success or failure of the restaurant.”
To do her job successfully, Andrews has to have first hand knowledge of the food. Simply put, she has to have tasted virtually everything. At the same time, she can’t let her own preferences color her description of a particular dish.
“Guests frequently ask me what dish-or dishes-I like best,” she says. “My answer is based on both my own experience and my reading of the kind of dish I think the guest would like. After all, not everyone is comfortable with pork cheek, sun chokes or Calabrian chili butter.”
A working knowledge of the beverage menu (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) is another must for Riley. She’s had considerable input into several of the cocktails on the current menu, and she’d relish an opportunity to have even more.
“When I think about my career, I envision myself in a managerial position,” she says. “That doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied with my current job. It’s just that I’m becoming more knowledgeable in a lot of areas, and I’d like to put that knowledge to work.”
City Mouse is a collaboration between the Ace Hotel and Jason Vincent, chef/owner of Giant, a restaurant in the Logan Square area.
“Being part of a large company like the Ace Hotel group creates a lot of options,” she continues. “When I came to Chicago, I worked as a bartender. I liked the position, but I I didn’t like working until 3 am as a regular event. City Mouse, on the other hand, is open all day, so I can vary my schedule.”
For now, Andrews is happy where she is. But as she points out, the hospitality industry offers a lot of options. She concludes, “I have to be flexible. There are lots of opportunities, so I can’t say, for sure, where I’ll be ten years from now. I think that’s exciting.”
City Mouse, 311 Morgan Street, 312.764.1919
Graystone Tavern in Wrigleyville is celebrating the season with a Hanukkah themed pop-up. "8 Crazy Nights," which runs through Tuesday, December 31, includes a winter wonderland of decorations, along with a special menu of favorites like latkes, matzo ball soup, and donuts filled with house made, vodka-infused jelly. Seasonally-inspired cocktails and a rotating selection of craft beers add a festive touch, as do the board and card games. Each night will feature different events, among them a dreidel spinning tournament and movie night.
8 Crazy Nights at Graystone Tavern, 3441 N. Sheffield Ave. (773-666-5450).
Stretch Bar and Grill is hosting the second edition of Elf'd Up, a themed holiday event complete with Elf-inspired decorations, an upside down Christmas tree, and elf-shaped cookies. Buddy, the hero of "Elf," (the movie), will make a surprise guest appearance Thursdays through Saturdays between 9pm and midnight.
The Elf'd Up menu begins with seasonal cocktails and Elf- style dishes like Buddy's Breakfast Pasta made with spaghetti, maple syrup, chocolate fudge, chocolate syrup, mini marshmallows, and strawberry frosted Pop-Tarts and Buddy Burgers served on toasted green buns.
Buddy's Brunch, served from 11 am-2 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, features dishes such as the "You Smell Like a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Sandwich"; green Papa Elf Pancakes; and a Buddy Burrito.
Elf'd Up, 3484 N. Clark St.,773.755.3980