August 14, 2008
A couple years ago, we discovered one of our favorite Chicago restaurants through a happy accident. It was a Friday night and both Kevin and I had a hankering for guacamole and tequila (not necessarily in that order), so we made our way to our favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant. As we rounded the corner onto the restaurant’s block, though, we heard the unmistakable sounds of mariachi. We both looked at each other and groaned. It was the Friday after Cinco de Mayo and our normally half-full (on a good night) Mexican place was in the throes of a raucous fiesta. We kept walking.
I vaguely recalled reading about a newish little Italian place and I thought it was only a few more blocks away. (If I am known for my directional skills it is not in a good way and, really, it’s a miracle that Kevin walked even a block further in any direction that I advocated.) As I’d read, the restaurant—called Terragusto—was making homemade pasta and garnering some early glowing but quiet praise. When we found the restaurant, bookending a street of classic Chicago brick two-flats and a striped-awning-ed dry cleaner, we noted, with excitement, the old-timey pasta rollers and cartons of fresh eggs visible from the front window. We were seated at one of the dining room’s dozen or so tables and told that the restaurant was BYO. (Do you non-Chicagoan readers know about this? That there are at least a handful of restaurants in any given neighborhood that forego a liquor license and instead invite diners to tote in a bottle (or, ahem, bottles) of their choice? It’s a major selling point for our fair city, I think.)
(Click “more” for the rest of the story, more photos & the recipe.)
Not wanting us to go thirsty, Kevin jogged around the corner to a wine shop to grab us a bottle of red wine. While he was gone, I scanned the menu with growing glee (and hunger). The menu was tightly edited, fitting for a restaurant no bigger than a large bedroom (and a kitchen the size of a decent walk-in closet), and organized around the traditional acts of an Italian meal: antipasti, primi and secondi. Since that first trip, we’ve fallen into a comfortable rhythm of ordering: an antipasti platter to share, a small bowl of pasta apiece (for Kevin, always, always the al forno, a baked dish of thin pasta sheets swaddled in a rich, four-meat ragu; for me, typically a whole wheat pasta, preferably laced with woodsy mushrooms), and a small piece of simply grilled, usually local meat (generally pork loin or skirt steak) served with a mélange of vegetables and a wedge of grilled polenta.
It’s a feast, by any measure—the kind that has me waking up the next morning still savoring it. For a while, we played a game of “what was your favorite dish?” but we could never come to a conclusion. Even the tiny helpings of this or that on the antipasti platter are completely memorable and delicious. The antipasti vary, but they usually include slices of several salamis and nearly translucent pieces of prosciutto. There’s also the freshest, softest mozzarella and a hard cheese too. And perfectly hard-boiled eggs, often drizzled with pesto and a scatter of toasted pine nuts. These offerings are arranged in heaps around the platter, like splotches of paint on a wooden painter’s palette. In summer months, you can count on the center of the platter to be anchored with a salad composed of thin ribbons of zucchini, flecked with bits of fresh mint.
Since we moved to our current location, we don’t make it to Terragusto as often. From our old apartment, we could walk there (and waddle home) and we rarely missed a monthly menu change. We’ve tried in vain to find a comparable Italian spot in our new neighborhood. Instead, for the times when battling public transportation up to Roscoe Village seems too great a hassle, we make this salad, which reflects some of the stand-out elements of Terragusto’s antipasti platter: the minted zucchini, slices of proscuitto and chunks of fresh mozzarella. Fortunately, our kitchen also has a generous BYO policy.
Minted Zucchini Salad with Proscuitto & Mozzarella
Serves 2 (as a side dish)
1 medium-sized zucchini
1/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/3 cup chopped or torn fresh mozzarella
2 thin slices of proscuitto, cut into ribbons
2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Prepare a pot of boiling water. Meanwhile, using a vegetable peeler, shave the zucchini into long, thin ribbons. Place the zucchini ribbons in a steamer basket and sprinkle them with salt; toss gently. Place the steamer basket on top of the boiling water, cover and steam for one minute. Shock the zucchini by rinsing them, in the steamer basket, with cold water. Gently spread the zucchini out on a clean kitchen towel to dry.
Once the cooled zucchini has dried, place it in a medium-sized bowl and add the mozzarella, proscuitto and mint. Toss to combine. Divide the salad between two small plates and drizzle each with olive oil.