Monday, January 26, 2004

The Best?
Riviera Italian Foods

I and a lot of people have been intrigued over the last several months about the idea of the "best." I cannot speak to other's motivations or inspirations, but I clearly got thinking about the idea after being confronted with about 12 breads any time I shopped at Caputo's in Elmwood Park. Which of the breads was truly the best? Eventually, this question morphed into the bread tasting party. The bread tasting failed on a couple of levels. Mostly, it failed because only a few breads came even close to the consensus winner, Melissa's home baked/ancient starter country loaves. It also failed because, confronted with too many things including such non-bread things as excellent Wiv-cured gravlax, we kinda lost our tasting rigor.

Dickson coordinated the next search for the best, a survey of several Italian beef stands. Dickson imposed some structure to the process, and it produced, if nothing else, a more scientific outcome, even if I felt that the scientific approach ever so slightly caused us to value the parts over the whole. I mean try it. See how different a beef sandwich can taste when you eat each part separate. Finally, the tightly focused crowd have done a huge and exhaustive survey of Chicago BBQ. See here and here for the results to date. Taking an opposite approach from the beef tasting, the rib tasters have generally provided singular opinions of places tried. Perhaps it is easier with BBQ to settle in one opinion vs. Italian beefs, where people seemed to have assorted ideas. All in all, I enjoy all these quests whether participating in the process or not.

Still, the best is a problematic issue. My biggest problem with the quest, is that I am too often happy with what I know to be great, compared to the effort to be comprehensive. Every so often, you hit a place so, so far better, so special, so great, you know it is the best. The question of best Italian sub comes up fairly often on Chowhound, and I have been highly unfamiliar with some of the sub contenders in Chicago. I have been wanting then, to visit Riviera ASAP. Best?

I did. On Friday. Can we cancel the contest? I find it hard to imagine a greater sub than Riviera. The Riviera sub gets so great possibly, because when you enter the store, there is NO indication of subs offered. But this means a purely custom sub. First, you pick exactly which roll you want. One of the choices is Mazza's, pointed at both ends, wide in the middle, thing, my favorite of this kind locally. Only great bread can produce the best sandwich. Second, you pick whatever else in the display case you want inside your sandwich. It is a not exactly easy process. How do you know which of the fresh and tasty looking meats and cheeses will work best together. OurPalWill suggests this combo. I, almost randomly, picked an intense looking capicolla, one of those 12 inch diameter mortadella, silky prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. Luckily, it worked. For garnish, I took both the house's home-made eggplant salad and the house's home-made hot giardinara. Since it would be a while until I ate, they packed both accessories separately for me. The house giardinara is surely one of the ways that makes this the best. On the deli counter, always stand several jars of what they have canned, including the made with jalepeno's, hot giardiana. It looks so raw, so pure, so real, I know these are the best, and any sandwich with them, is the best. All of this, less than $3.50.

Before picking up my sub, I grabbed an espresso at Bar Nazionale next door. The coffee was OK, say slightly behind a decent pull at Starbucks. I found it excessively winey with no heady coffee aroma necessary for a great cup.

On the other hand, stopped for a cup yesterday at Caffee Italia, also on Harlem, but more south, and this remains, by far, the benchmark espresso in Chicago. Rich, dense, and as Steingarden expresses so well, actually achieving a taste close to that of the gorgeous coffee aroma. This place, with its intense haze of smoke, its groups of men gathered around various tables speaking in a 100 languages and its most real espresso around, is like a worm-hole to Europe.

Imported & Domestic Italian Foods
3220 North Harlem Ave.
Chicago, IL 60634

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