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May 22, 2009

Café De Luca

by gastronomicbypass

Location – 1721 N. Damen Avenue (Damen and St. Paul)

In One Word – Solid

Food – While selecting somewhere to eat that would be within walking distance of the Map Room I’ve happily found myself at Café De Luca twice in the past two weeks. The restaurant is easy to recommend because it serves casual Italian fare with broad appeal, the menu is inexpensive, and the food is solid.

On my first visit, I enjoyed the Gnocchi with a tomato cream sauce, garnished with fresh basil and wide pieces of nutty shaved parmesan ($14), which I highly recommend. The gnocchi was tender and the sauce was creamy but not heavy. It was very satisfying; the perfect portion for a richer dish. My Trusty Sidekick built his own pizza with onions, mushrooms and fresh mozzarella ($14–$11 base price + $1/each ingredient) and our dining partner had Farfalle in pesto cream sauce with grilled chicken ($14). They could only get through about half of their portions and each raved about their selections—I can vouch that the pizza was delicious with a thin, blistered crust, and that the Farfalle pasta had a very flavorful sauce that let you taste the fresh ingredients. We enjoyed the food so much that we recommended heading over to CDL while with a larger group of friends this past weekend. On my second visit, our group started out with an order of Grilled Calamari ($9), which was served on a bed of arugula with tomato slices and a bright lemon vinaigrette. This is not your typical calamari with breaded rings and tentacles that can be very heavy and rubbery; instead, the calamari was grilled in one piece and then cut into thicker slices, which gave it a very tender texture that was more like eating a well-prepared scallop than a slice of calamari. The jury was out on this one—if you’re a breaded-calamari lover, this probably won’t scratch your itch. But, if you enjoy scallops, or if you’ve been too shy to try calamari because of the tentacles or have been turned off by a rubbery texture, consider ordering this—you’ll run into neither of these problems. For my main course I tried the Pear and Gorgonzola spinach salad and I added grilled shrimp ($15)—if you add grilled shrimp or chicken to the salad, it is definitely big enough to be an meal, especially if you’re looking for a lighter but satisfying entrée. It was served with five very large shrimp, generous chunks of salty gorgonzola cheese, slices of juicy pears, candied walnuts, and a deliciously thick balsamic-reduction dressing. All those flavors and textures together=a party in my mouth. Trusty and two friends split the Verona pizza ($12) and two salads between them—the Pear and Gorgonzola and the Caprese ($9), and another friend dominated the Venezia pizza ($12) all on his own. This was a brave man, given how large these pizzas are. The Verona and the Venezia were big hits at the table—the Verona featured goat cheese, roasted red peppers, arugula and pine nuts dressed with a touch of olive oil, and the Venezia was a basil pesto base with fresh mozzarella, chicken, and veggies. Again, the delicious thin crust was what really wowed everyone. For so little dough, CDL’s pizzas are a great deal (Groan! Oh puns.)—especially if you’re looking for a satisfying meal to share with a larger group.

Drink – CDL has a basic wine menu with inexpensive, but again solid wines. On my first visit I had a glass of pinot noir, and Trusty and our dining partner had a glass of Chianti. On my second visit, our group split a bottle of the wine special, which was a juicy Syrah Malbec. Two thumbs up for the wine special—it was a delicious wine and helped to save some cash for a glass of beer at the Map Room. (Wine before Beer and you’re in the clear.)

Service – The service is good—attentive and friendly, but very relaxed.

Scene – The décor is a little too “theme-y”; a fake ruin-wall runs through the main room and a clothes line—complete with dresses supposedly set out to dry—is strung across the ceiling. Ignore the cheesy Epcot-esque touches and focus on the more tasteful colored glass lanterns hung over the bar at various heights, as well as the hand painted designs on some of the larger wooden tables. You’ll see groups of friends enjoying conversation, and we saw what looked to be like a first date also. Unlike other restaurants in the heart of the Wicker Park/Bucktown divide, it wasn’t too crowded and we didn’t have to wait for a table either time.

Dress – I wore jeans and a casual sweater both times. The scene is very low-key, so let your after-dinner plans dictate your dress, but keep in mind that if you walk in super hot-to-trot you may stand out.

Cost – On my first visit, we split the bill three ways and paid $23 each. On my second visit with a group of five, splitting the bottle of wine brought down the cost to about $20 per person. Both times I thought that for the quality of food and wine, the price was very fair.

If you like, try … Mia Francesca, Enoteca Roma

Written by hungry yuppie

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