Hello Chicago ~ Eating To Live/Living To Eat

Eating is serious business. We spend approximately six years of our life eating. Now in a busier more mobile America, much of that eating occurs outside the home.

Which brings us to the savory fact there are more than 7000 restaurants in the Chicago area, serving tens of thousands of meals every day, from our culture’s three largest menus. First, our standard neighborhood menu featuring the dependable chicken, turkey, hamburger, and apple pie litany some say is sent out weekly from a central kitchen in Greece. Second, our favorite ethnic menu featuring the usual Italian antipasti, menastroni, pasta, pollo, and cannoli. Third, our popular order-out Chinese menu featuring the usual egg rolls, chicken, pork, fried rice, and fortune cookies.

Be assured, this daily epiphany of restaurant meals continues to this day. However, there is a glitch of sorts, at least as some of us see it.

In recent years, Chicago’s classic Italian Trattorias [serving simple meals] have been closing like El Bianco on the south side, Como Inn on the west side, and Monastero on the north side. In their place, haute cusine Italian Restorantes [serving high end meals] are cropping up. And while they have every gastronomical right to do so, those of us whose mothers and grandmothers made authentic Trattoria meals at home are a tad troubled.

So consider this our Caveat Emptor.

Beware of elegant restaurateurs strutting as Italian Chefs, when what is really needed are a few more authentic Italian Cooks. Cooks like Mom and Gram. Cooks who couldn’t spell the items on the pricey downtown menus, because they were too busy making not spelling great recipes. One troubling example — today’s elegant Italian eateries love to serve Polenta’s and Fritatta’s as if they were delicacies worth the price tags, when we all know Mom and Gram served these from yesterday’s leftovers. Come on guys, a little candor!

Something else that troubles our kitchen memories. Like many Italian-Americans, we remember our meals as bounteous enough to actually see and smell and touch on our platters. Not cutesy  morsels of unknown fish or meat, hiding ever so daintily under some pretentious green stuff topped with a magnificently inedible sauce. I know, I know, it’s called Haute Cusine; but lets be serious. What these places give you is about the size they serve in hospitals. Cutsey is just not Italian…!

What then is to be done about Chicago’s latest obsession with pretension? Here’s a thought. If Mom and Gram aren’t there to make it, skip the cutesy for the cozy. Skip the Restorante Haute Cusine for a booth in your local Tratorria. They’re family. In America, we’re all family.

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