Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Frank Sinatra Ate Here

"I'm the rookie here," my water said with a smile. He's been serving steaks at Chicago's Gene & Georgetti's for 12 years. I settled into the cozy dining room that I suspect has changed very little since the doors first opened in 1941. 
Waiters whisk through the restaurant in white coats (some with a towel over a shoulder -- love that) bringing old time Chicago Italian American specialties. Dishes I suspect also haven't changed much since 1941.
The bread isn't warm, It's not made in house. It's certainly not organic and far from needing a label like artisanal. But it's somehow comforting. A touchstone to my childhood when garlic was exotic and the mysteries behind dark restaurant doors were for very special occasions.
I'd been waning to try a few of Chicago's less famous (perhaps) but revered regional specialties. I started with an appetizer of local favorite Shrimp de Jonghe. Basically it's shrimp cooked in a super garlicky, but still somehow mellow, butter sauce. That crusty bread came in pretty handy.
Iceberg lettuce, tomato wedge, and a tangy oil and vinegar dressing (not even any cheese) make Gene & Georgetti's house salad a throwback to the days before mesclun mixes and restaurants with backyard farms. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I loved it. It felt good to cut through that crunchy, watery lettuce.  Suddenly I was back to my hometown's "Little Italy" fidgeting in my best clothes, napkin in my lap, trying hard to keep up with adult conversation. 
I look around the room and I can picture elegant women in short fur stoles delicately dragging a fork through dishes like Chicken Vesuvio. This broiled chicken dish is another regional Chicago favorite, poultry simply drenched in an olive oil and garlic sauce that also flavors the crisp -- okay delicious -- fried potatoes. 
I love that there is nothing modern about this menu. It's not food I want to eat everyday but I love that it still exists and diners can make a visit to a bygone time when Frank Sinatra might have been holding court at the next table. 
Gene & Geogetti's was born in the days when Italian food was exotic and ethnic. Back when spaghetti wasn't something every American family ate regularly. We've come a long way as diners but I'm glad friendly and yes tasty places like G&G's still exist somewhere. I hope they never fade away.

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