Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

Culinary Chicago

Avec, check (liked the stuffed olives and the cool all-wood interior with communal tables.) Purple Pig, check (liked the quartino carafes of Greek chardonnay and the fried brussel sprouts with lemon, thyme and pepper.)

But some of my finer food moments in the Windy City lately have happened when I stumbled, cold and hungry, into lesser-known places.

Topo Gigio, Lincoln Park – A friend and I were on our way to the Chicago History Museum when a sunshine-drenched table for two lured us into this old-school Italian trattoria. We had two steaming bowls of chicken tortellini soup with fresh spinach and parmigiano reggiano, an order of perfectly al dente grilled calamari, and a plate of exquisitely presented tomato and basil bruschetta with prosciutto. The waiter seemed to be from northern Italy; he called us ‘ragazze.’

On the way out, we saw a framed photo of Jerry Seinfeld on the wall. His personal note to the owner said ‘thanks for lending me the stretch pants.’

Hemmingway’s Bistro, Oak Park (pictured above) – Technically, it’s not in the city. And truthfully, I’d heard some very mixed reviews about this place. But since I had company in town and we were doing the Frank Lloyd Wright/Ernest Hemingway circuit in Oak Park, we decided to take a chance on this casual brasserie. And I’m so glad we did. A very friendly waiter, Peter, must have taken a shine to my pretty friend – otherwise I can’t explain why we gave us a complimentary tasting of white wines from France. This was my first time trying a white Bordeaux; we also had a lovely Beaujolais paired with garlicky mussels (for me), an impossibly rich French onion soup (for my friend) and our shared plate of greens with goat cheese wedges.

After all of these treats, it’s a wonder I was able to hold my head up to look at the museum exhibits afterwards. And I can confirm that Ernest’s love affair during WWI (the relationship that famously inspired A Farewell to Arms) involved a Red Cross nurse who was really gorgeous by any standards. I often find myself wondering why the ‘great beauties’ of yesterday seem plain in the harsher light of 2011 – while reading Zelda last year I kept flipping to the photo insert, staring at old photos of Zelda Fitzgerald and trying to figure out why she was considered so ravishing in her day. But that’s another story.

I want to say that I did like the French food at Hemmingway’s Bistro and therefore I am willing to forgive the extra ‘M’ they’ve tacked onto the writer’s name. I know you were wondering about that little detail.