By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris • Restaurant Critic
I don't spend much time in Streeterville — too crowded with Iowans looking for the American Girl store. So I had forgotten all about Volare. Located on Grand Avenue just off the tourist mob, it's a hidden gem of warm, happy-to-see-you, old school Italian.
Charlene the waitress will sit you down and set you up with a teeming bowl of charred calamari, octopus, shrimp and scallops, balsamic-grilled with just enough salt and pepper. Also try the minestrone, which is homemade with fresh vegetables and a bright tomato base. Even simple things like the bruschetta and antipasto tray were fresh and delicious. Braciole is one of those things not made well in most restaurants. Except this one. The pounded flank steak was steeped until tender and wrapped around a hard-boiled egg, cheese and basil — very old school and very rare to find it done this well.
Want hearty? Try the Risotto Fattoria, which comes with diced chicken, peas and a super-rich, four-cheese sauce. Eat the whole thing and it's nap time. They serve half orders, and half is plenty. On a lighter note: Try the Paillard di Pollo — airline chicken (pounded paper thin with the little wing standing up) with a very simple extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper topped with sharp arugula, mushrooms, artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. It is a chicken salad with a lot of flair and a lot of taste. If you are a mushroom person, try the earthy Manicotti ai Funghi Misti (which is good, but not really manicotti — it is a crepe filled with ricotta and served with tons of wild mushrooms with a truffle cream sauce). Stay for dessert too. Tremendous tiramisu that holds up without being mushy and crispy little cannoli is perfect for sharing. So if you find yourself dodging the wide-eyed travelers on Michigan Avenue, sneak off a half a block or so to Volare for a glass of wine and unsurpassed hospitality.
Traveler's Tip: If my daughter hadn't moved there after college, I would never have gone to Chile. Who goes to Chile? Sometimes to the Dells or maybe Florida. Hawaii for a honeymoon and Italy for a really fancy "we've made it" trip. But South America? Raise your hand if you have even heard of Copa Airlines. Me neither until Taylor forced me to buy (and not use) Rosetta Stone's Spanish program and visit this incredible strip of a country.
Valparaiso is the city just to the north of Vina del Mar. It was the largest seaport on the west side of South America for years and it still holds ancient and surprisingly unspoiled images of what it must have been like 100 years ago. If San Francisco and New Orleans had a baby, it would be Valpo. It is riddled with artisan shops where you can buy alpaca scarves, sweaters or slippers for very little. You walk a couple of blocks past the general assembly building and the courthouse to a sort of elevator called an ascensor. It is a small car, which, for the price of 300 pesos (about 60 cents) takes you up a near vertical hill to an amazing town.
Lunch must be at Cafe Vinilo — a small bistro operated by Chef Gonzalo Lara. Chef Lara doesn't speak much English, but his face said all it needed to say when he came out and gently chided the few in our party who opted for simple sandwiches and Cokes instead of his original fresh examples of Chilean cuisine, washed down with a bottle or three of any one of a zillion delicious Chilean wines (which you are not going to see at Binny's — certainly not for about $6 a bottle). In fairness to the sandwich eaters, the bread is hot, fresh and made every morning. A cold Coke wasn't a bad call for a 2 p.m. lunch after climbing all day.
Taking the chef's advice, however, was a much better plan. We had salmon, prepared rare inside but crusty outside and served on top of a mound of what I think was quinoa. It was flavored with a smoky, slightly spicy sauce that had a flavor that I had never had in the U.S. Another choice was roasted rabbit, served over hearty rice. This, like most of the meat we had, was well cooked and — don't get squeamish — we were assured by the waitress (who spoke great English) that they only used ugly rabbits. We also had a pork dish that the chef made off the menu. It was something that I am going to have to try to make but never would have thought of myself. It was a thick round of pork, probably a loin, maybe a shoulder, served over citrus-infused mashed potatoes (tasting more of orange than lemon) with enough spice to make it interesting but not overpowering. Delicious.
Stay for dessert. The gelato is as fresh and flavorful as any in Italy, probably better (but when we are talking really good gelato, the best is the one you are eating right now). We also had a crazy-good olive mousse with chilled creamed cheese. If you love olives, it's a must. If not, stick with sweets. When you go to Chile, you must visit Valpo. It's a lot different than the law school I went to in Indiana and there are a dozen restaurants that looked great. Vinilo was terrific, warm and welcoming like most everything else we found.
201 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Appetizers: $7 - $19
Entrees: $25 - $89