Chicago: What Kind of Fool am I? (Cafe Spiaggia)

I may have sunk to a new low. I stalked Top Chef’s Fabio Viviani at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.  You know how it is when you see someone familiar and it takes a moment to figure out how you know them? That’s what happened here. But then I hear the Italian accent and I know.  Fabio from “Top Chef” Season Five and “Top Chef All Stars.”   I pause.  Should I stop him and say something?  I am torn.  I text my son.  “I’m in the airport and Fabio is a few feet away from me.  Should I say something?”  He texts back “go for it.”  Of course had my son been with me this would be cause for him to run in the opposite direction.

I keep my eyes peeled as Fabio moves away and heads to a food kiosk.  I can’t follow him, can I? As I debate what to do suddenly Fabio turns and walks right towards me, so I say “excuse me I’m a fan and my son says I have to say hello.”  That’s it, blame my son. He doesn’t look very excited to meet me.  I prattle on.  “I’ve met Mike Isabella, and Carla Hall, and I wanted to meet you too.”

I had actually seen on Twitter that Mike Isabella was in Chicago for the “Top Chef” Tour (coming to DC soon). In fact Mike sent a tweet that specifically mentioned Fabio (more on that later). “Are you here for the Top Chef tour?” I ask.  He stares at me blankly.  “I am here on other business.”  Oh that accent!  We talk (or more accurately  I talk) for a few seconds more and then he departs.  I mutter “I’m a fan.” He clearly isn’t in the mood.  But hey, now I’ve got something to blog about now plus another notch on my Top Cheftestant tally sheet. Never mind that I’m left feeling a little foolish for stopping him.


Rewinding a bit, I am in Chicago for a meeting and have been debating where to dine. Spiaggia is a top choice, but I don’t feel comfortable charging an extravagant dinner to my employer.  After agonizing over a few different options, we head to Cafe Spiaggia which is the more casual sibling to Spiaggia and a favorite of the Obamas.The focaccia bread gets us off to a delightful beginning. Spiaggia Chef/Partner Tony Mantuano (who was on “Top Chef Masters” last year), personally selects an Italian olive oil to be used at the restaurant each year.  This is a wise move, as the olive oil is so delicious I am tempted to drink some from the bottle.
I begin with carota, which is shaved carrot, fava beans, radish, pea shoots, mint, lemon, and Parmigiano frico.  The perfectly-sized portion benefits from fresh ingredients and a dressing that is tangy with just a touch of sweet. I could almost stop my dinner right here.

For my main course I have gnocchi with wild boar ragu and parmigiano reggiano.   I wait for the flavors to jump out at me but nothing happens.  The meat could be just about anything and the sauce is not particularly distinctive.  The gnocchi itself (handcrafted) has a nice texture.  It is not a bad dish, but I find it to be indistinct.  I am coming down with a cold so it is possible that I am missing some subtle flavors, but I am a bit disappointed nonetheless.

Both of my colleagues are satisfied with their dishes, but I am not hearing any superlatives.  I skip dessert because earlier in the day my colleague and I have made a quick excursion to Molly’s Cupcakes (if you are in Chicago and you like cupcakes this is a must).

I go back to my hotel room and see a tweet from Mike Isabella declaring his love for the gnocchi at Spiaggia:  “My favorite gnocchi in the world! sorry so good I couldn’t take a picture.”   Did I just eat the exact same gnocchi at the same time and fine it lacking?  Did I miss something?  Are my taste buds really so affected by my cold?

I begin to question my judgment.  Maybe the dish really was fantastic and I didn’t even know it.  I’m starting to like the dish a little better and then I begin to berate myself for being so easily influenced.  I didn’t love my gnocchi.  Period.  I check the online menu for Spiaggia and see that the more formal dining room features a different gnocchi altogether.  And it sounds really, really good.  I laugh at loud at the idiocy of my nearly changing my opinion. It goes to show how powerful a review or even a simple tweet can be.

I am actually grateful that I did not run into Mike Isabella and his fellow “Top Cheftestant” Antonia Lofaso dining together at Spiaggia.   I am sure that I would not have been able to control my urge to interrupt their dinner or at the very least  attempt to shoot a photo.  I definitely am prone to act like a fool when I spot celebrities. At least I wasn’t foolish enough to hold on to the belief that my meal was better than it was.

Mike Isabella and Antonia Lofaso

Spiaggia Cafe, 980 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago
My rating (on a 1-5 scale):  3.5
Zagat rating:  25

Cafe Spiaggia on Urbanspoon


  1. […] What Kind of Fool am I?  Cafe Spiaggia, Chicago (Chef Fabio Viviani and Chef Mike Isabella) […]

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