I made it my mission this weekend to start exploring some suburban chow spots. Johnnies was my #1 priority, since the chowathon and related threads had been so vehement. I drove up, got in line, didn't hold the door open, and ordered a beef, juicy with sweety and hot peppers, and a plain italian sausage with hot peppers (I managed to avoid any ordering gaffes, but the woman behind me was not as lucky: she ordered a beef combo, and was immediately corrected with a grin, "you can't have a beef combo, just say combo!"), and went out to my car to torment the chumps who were still in line by inhaling both sandwiches in a matter of minutes.
My verdict on the beef: The bread was great, the juice was savory and peppery, the peppers were bracing and delicious with a phenomenal crunch that was a fantastic counterpoint to the texture of the beef. After the sandwich was finished, the juice pooled in the wax paper without dripping out the bottom in a way that seemed to defy gravity. It was as if the juice was on my side, and didn't want to see me wandering around for the rest of the day with a greasy beef stain on the front of my pants. So that's good. But the beef itself, I must confess, didn't thrill me. Maybe this is the price of not having grown up with the italian beef sandwich, but i tend I like my thin sliced sandwich beef to have a little more resistance, I guess, to not be quite as grainy and gritty as the long boiled beef one finds in the classic italian beef. I still think it's a good sandwich, and of the beefs I've tried Johnnie's is the best, but I'm not sold on the concept. Oh well. I still need to sample Al's -- maybe that will be the beef that converts me.
The sausage, on the other hand was terrific: with the same textural complexities as Lem's hotlinks, a little bit of kick and a little char from the coals. I liked it alot. Next time I would get the sweet and hot on the wausage as well, the hot peppers by themselves were a little monotonous, and i micht try it juicy or even in a combo. Next time I'll also need to try out a lemon ice.
I strolled over to Massa, and got a caramel and ferrero rocher cup, which was very good. Creamy, a little too sweet, but with nice chunks of actual candy in the ferrero rocher. I had an espresso there, but it was poor: too much liquid, and not half as strong as I would have liked. The gelato is fine, but suffers in comparison to the Penguin (which I visited last night (nothing exceeds like excess)) whose dulce di leche has the bitter complexity that Massa's caramel lacked.
Then I went off to search for Caputo's which I have been meaning to get to since I asked about fersh produce over a year ago. Unfortunately I neglected to bring the addressed with me. With the help of the wireless internet, I found my self at Caputo's cheese shop (near the official chow hound horse track), where I bought a nice chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano at a reasonable price, some fresh mozzarella, some fresh ricotta, and some timy brine soaked gaeta olives. The mozzarella is very good: a little denser than ideal but with a very pleasant creaminess around the outer edge and the right amount of salt. The ricotta is very nice, but I fear I made a mistake by not using it within 4 hours of buying it. If I could get a hold of a brioche (are such things available in chicago?) then this would be a fine ricotta to eat with honey on said brioche. The cheese selection is good, if peculiar (there are lots of big bricks of nondescript jack style cheese, right along side the tubs of fresh bocconcini). I guess they are dealign with two demographic simultaneously: the local italians and the greater chicago area, to which I think, they supply a fair amount of supermarket cheese.
With the help of a handy brochure available at the checkout which had the addresses of each of the Caputo brothers' culinary enterprises, I made my way back up Harlem to Caputo's Fresh Produce. As promised elsewhere on this board, there was a wide variety of affordable fresh seasonal produce. I stood with little old italian ladies sifting throught the fresh favas, I tried to distinguish a decent baby artichoke from a tough one (with indeterminate success, I haven't gotten around to preparing the ones I chose yet), I bought some cream puffs and fought my way to the front of the express line. It's a great market, filled with neighborhood italians speakng in dialect (along with the occasional thai/east asian shopper looking for good veggies). I highly recommend it and heartily thank those who recommended it to me. I only wish they would buy out Stanley's so there would be a branch within city limits.
So concluded my first foray into suburban eating.