Story and photos by guest blogger Seanan Forbes
Ah, the U.S. Open: tennis, sunshine, some of the world's top athletes, stars watching athletes, people watching stars watching athletes . . .
Wherever there are masses, there will be shops, attractions, distractions, kiosks, advertisements and, of course, food and drink. If you're craving an over-boiled hot dog and a watered-down soda, then here's a tip: Don't go to Tony Mantuano's wine bar.
Rita Garza, senior director of corporate communications for the United States Tennis Association, says, "The U.S. Open is the greatest sporting event in the world, and food should go with that." According to Garza, the wine bar is "the most magical place you can be on the ground."
As of this year, there are two wine bars. Like temporary art exhibits, they are not here - or there - to stay. "None of this existed two weeks ago," Mantuano observes, "and it'll all be gone in five days."
Steve Paluck, line cook at Terzo Piano ("line cook extraordinaire," Mantuano murmurs) is in New York working in Mantuano's pop-up restaurant and enjoying a rare treat: watching people respond to what he's prepared.
"The people who come to this wine bar are blown away . . . They're sitting in a hallway, but it's turned into something luxurious," he says.
He's speaking of the club-level wine bar. Indoors, away from the sunshine, it is cooler but smaller than the original. The crew doesn't have much room to work in. The patrons would have space to sprawl, if only more of them would stay away. They don't. They come in thirsty hordes. Hungry, too. They tear into bread rubbed with tomatoes and draped with jamon and Manchego. They eat shrimp sauteed in olive oil with garlic, jalapeno and potatoes, flamed with ouzo. The taste takes Mantuano to Greece - "Santorini, like I'm on a yacht somewhere."
Patrons can't know it, but they're tasting a Mantuano travelogue. Chicagoans are savvier. Anybody who's eaten at Spiaggia knows that it's where food from all Italian regions comes to plate.
The wine bar has a broader span. Inspecting a frosty plastic cup of watermelon juice and raki (at left), a liqueur to be found in Turkey, Bosnia, the Balkans and Binny's, Mantuano remembers, "I had this drink in Istanbul last July, and I thought it was one of the most delicious things I'd ever tasted." With fresh juice and a sparky note of anisette, watermelon and raki is as good a summer cooler as you could seek on any continent.
At the wine bar as in Spiaggia, Mantuano is rooted in Old World culture. He's reveling in New World produce - and in the season. Watermelon and raki, he says, wouldn't taste the same at any other time of year. The fresh juice makes it sing. (Drinker, beware. This drink sings a deceptively innocent tune. Five cups later, you'll wake up in another state, married to a tennis fan you don't remember meeting.) The Venetian, a sparkling cocktail, has the decency to remind you that you're drinking alcohol. With ginger and Prosecco, it has a bit of a bite. Unlike the Watermelon and Raki, the Venetian is available in Chicago -- but only through the end of the Open and only at Cafe Spiaggia.
"Tony has such class and commitment," Garza says, "and he's a tennis fan, himself. He talks about how, every year, tennis takes competition to the next level. He wants to take food to the next level, as well." Her words are prophetic. Go next year, and you'll find different items on the menu. Mantuano has decided that the tuna tartare is leaving; tuna's not sustainable. The drinks will be unchanged.
Start saving to buy your tickets - and if you're placing bets, then gamble that the wine bars will be better than ever.
MAKES 1 DRINK
1 part Lemon Juice (1 cup)
2 part Pineapple Juice (2 cups)
1 part Canton Ginger Liqueur (1½ shots)
Mix, top with prosecco and serve over ice.
Watermelon and Raki
MAKES 1 DRINK
12 ounces fresh watermelon purée (fresh watermelon is key!)
1½ shots of Raki
2 fresh basil leaves
Mix and serve over ice