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From the Beard House: Spiaggia's Tony Mantuano spreads the love

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Story and photos by guest blogger and New York writer Seanan Forbes:

Think you're over romance? Then stay away from Spiaggia's chef. It is easy to fall in love with Tony Mantuano's love of Italy.

Spiaggia, 980 N. Michigan, opened 26 years ago, on Friday the 13th. According to Mantuano, 13 is a lucky number in Italy. Spiaggia's longevity has less to do with luck than with talent, intelligence and a passion that increases when it is shared.

Spiaggia's crew celebrated the anniversary with a crowd of admirers at the James Beard House in New York City. Asked about Spiaggia's success, Mantuano was swift to give the credit away: design, fashion, food, wine, service - all inspired by Italy. "We love all things Italian. It continues to inspire us, after 26 years," he says.

Don't imagine a quarter of a century of long-distance romance. Over the past few decades, Mantuano spent time in many regions. As he put it, "Where haven't I been?"

Every Spiaggia generation has visited Italy. At last week's Beard House dinner, Spiaggia's general manager Jason Goldsmith stood in for the sommelier, who was . . . you know where. Sarah Grueneberg became executive chef a year ago. Since then, she's been to Italy twice.

Mantuano enjoyed Grueneberg's joy. "Having worked there, and now having Sarah go back to those places that I worked at, 27 years ago, and seeing her fall in love with those people . . . and now it's the children of the people that I worked with who are in the kitchen -- and Sarah is the next generation, falling in love with Italian cuisine from the next generation from the people that I learned from." It's all about heritage.

Last year, the Mantuanos went to Molise, where they were celebrated as ambassadors of Italian culture. the piazza, there was a feast in their honor. "It was one of the greatest experiences ever," the chef said.

It was obvious that, for Mantuano, every moment - including the present one - was the greatest ever. Life was that good. IMG_0748-check-list.jpg

His air of convivial relaxation was infectious. Even the Beard House kitchen had a laid-back atmosphere. It was almost unnatural. At 3 o'clock, Jason Goldsmith (the manager standing in for the sommelier) walked through the kitchen and muttered, "Oh, it's way too clean in here."

Order and Mantuano reigned.

An hour before plating was to start, Bob Marcelli of Marcelli Formaggi gave the staff a cheese and honey tasting. Marcelli entertained the crew with stories of James Beard circa 1983, while people sampled artisan-made cheese and Mantuano and Grueneberg discussed cheese-plate details.

Five minutes later, Marcellis found themselves persuaded to speak to the guests about the cheese course (the irresistible magnetism of Mantuano) and given a table for the dinner (the undeniable generosity of Mantuano). The first guests arrived and Spiaggia's crew swung into professional action.

The pork belly appetizer was a Molisian recipe. "The belly's braised with this liberal dusting of chilies," Mantuano said. "It's not really hot. It's more of a sun-dried, smoky flavor, and they make it all over this town." The town is San Martino, the only place where this dish is made - except when Mantuano's cooking.

Megan Neubeck, sous chef of Terzo Piano, Spiaggia's sister restaurant in the Art Institute of Chicago, wrapped tissue-thin slices of Pantellerese caper-cured wild salmon around long double-helices of squid-ink breadsticks.

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Wisconsin lamb tartare - tiny cubes of lamb, lovingly seasoned - were adorned with translucent slices of black truffle and truffle-laced sheep's milk cheese. Earlier in the day, Grueneberg had shredded and baked the cheese. Now, it provided a crisp contrast with the cold, tender lamb and the truffle's warm earthiness.

The first plated dish was lobster carpaccio. Large, thin discs of crustacean went out adorned with swirls of Italian Osetra caviar, arugula and citrus.

Next up was Acquerello risotto with sea urchin (twice; there was spicy sea urchin broth in there, as well) and mascarpone. The rice was cooked just in time for service.

The timing had to be impeccable, but it kept Spiaggia's crew on the side of the angels. According to Mantuano, one of the sins of Italian cooking is precooked rice.

Precooked rice in a restaurant . . . Who does that?

Mantuano chuckled. "You want me to name names?" As he laughed, he plated richness: Broken Arrow Ranch Sika venison loin wrapped in venison sausage, served with with Montasio canerderli (another regional specialty, a dumpling from Trentino) and Trentino-style fennel kraut with Alto Adige speck.

Where other chefs serve appetizers, entrees and desserts, Mantuano dishes regions. From Trentino, he took his guests to Abruzzo. On the cheese plate: Pecorino de Parco, Abruzzo-style aged pecorino, Ricotta Ginepro (tender and delicately smoked), Pecorino Gregoriano (a mind-bending soft Pecorino) and Ricotta Scorza Nera. In the middle, two streaks of thick honey: tiglio (citrusy and herbaceous) and castagno (reminiscent of single malt). To the side, Mostocotto (Montepulciano d'Abruzzo grape juice reduction). Even the beer - Birra "Torbata", Almond 22 - came from Abruzzo. This was the life of the long-distance locavore. In more than one sense, the Beard House ate it up. IMG_0757-Tony-and-Sarah-enjoying-prep-work.jpg

In the kitchen, Mantuano remembered another sin of Italian cooking: precooked pasta. And bad espresso. There's no excuse for having no crema. Oh, and cappuccino after dinner.

There was to be no bad espresso with dessert. Brik pastry - as fine as filo -wrapped around figs, golden raisins, almonds, pine nuts and chocolate cremeaux. It managed to be both delicate and substantial, subtle and intense.

Mantuano was happy to speak with the people he'd just fed. He led them through a verbal food-tour of Italy. They fell in love with his love. And off they wafted, full of food and memories, Mantuano-warm in the cool Manhattan night.

2 Comments

Good friends, good food, good wine...that's the Mantuano's! This story is a near a perfect description of the affection felt for Tony, Cathy and all of the good people in their restaurants; Mangia in Kenosha, WI included.

I am so glad there is a picture of the wild salmon around the squid-ink breadsticks. It would otherwise be difficult to imagine what it looks like (although I cannot help wondering what it tastes like).

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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