Photos courtesy of Naperville 203 (books) and Forest Preserve District of DuPage County (Solar), Mykayla Jacobs-Davison (Walk to End Alzheimer’s), Jen Banowetz (Home), Edward-Elmhurst Health (Big Gig), and Morton Arboretum (Grand Garden)
Do you fumble every Thanksgiving when you try to carve your bird into something worthy of a Rockwell print? Go see John Wills, a former Coast Guard cook turned master knife sharpener. For less than 10 bucks, he’ll angle your dull cutlery against his trusty belt sander and hone it with a wheel that spins at 3,400 rpm, producing a blade that cuts as clean as a katana. He tests every knife to ensure it can smoothly slice, Ginsu style, through sheets of clean white paper. “Good knives glide through vegetables and meat,” Wills explains. “Dull knives smash them, draining them of their juices.” His shop—John’s Sharpening Service and Cutlery Store—is in Westmont (217 E. Ogden Ave.), with a drop-off (Sundays) and pickup (Wednesdays) location at Naperville’s Great Harvest Bread Co. (192 W. Gartner Rd.), a convenience guaranteed to save you grief this holiday season. —P.G.
Party season is here. Whether you’re hosting a traditional family meal or a grand shindig, we’ve got you covered, with ideas for charcuterie, turkey, and cocktails. We’ve even asked our restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, to recommend a few dining picks for when you’re in the holiday spirit, just not in the mood to cook.
All over the board
How to build a party-worthy cheese and charcuterie spread
A bountiful board piled high with cheeses, meats, olives, and fruit might just be the perfect party starter. “It’s such a beautiful way to bring people together, and so easy to do,” says Michelle Parker, owner of Chi-cuterie Boards and More in Geneva. “You don’t have to be a chef, you don’t have to be a great cook—anybody can do it.”
If you call it a charcuterie board, however, you won’t pass for a gourmand. “Charcuterie is a very specific thing: smoked or cured meats,” says Jill Foucré, owner of Marché in Glen Ellyn. “It’s funny to me when you see someone post a picture of a board with jelly beans on it, like, ‘Look at our charcuterie!’ ” If you’re serving more than just meat, call it a cheese and charcuterie board, party board, or grazing board.
Whatever you call it, it’s sure to please. Ready to build a board for your next book club session or holiday soiree? For tips, we asked the local pros: Parker; Foucré; Nataly Flores, owner of Bellyfull Boards in Lisle; and Jamane Broome-Hinton, owner of Jolie Charcuterie in Naperville.
When making cheese selections, Flores likes to include at least two common types that tend to please all palates. Among those options: “Gruyère, cheddar, a flavored goat cheese, Brie, even Manchego—because it’s nutty but it’s neutral and it doesn’t have a pungent odor,” she says. For a third cheese choice, consider a wild-card pick such as Drunken Goat, a goat’s milk cheese aged in wine, or Le Maréchal, a Swiss raw-milk cheese ripened with herbs. “These are cheeses you don’t usually find at the grocery store, so your more adventurous guests can really expand their taste buds,” Flores says.
Cashews, pecans, walnuts, Marcona almonds, and the like add earthiness and crunch. Sprinkle them throughout to fill in the gaps or keep them contained in a ramekin if any guests have nut allergies.
Sliced baguette, toast points, or crackers are all solid choices to accompany your charcuterie and cheese, either placed on the board or to the side. “Be really neutral with your flavors,” Foucré says. “You don’t want the garden-herb Triscuits that are going to have too much flavor all by themselves.” Breadsticks are also a fun match for spreadable cheese. “I love having them in a vessel standing up tall, adding some height to your table,” Parker adds.
“You can never go wrong with Genoa salami,” Flores says. “I also love Sangiovese wine salami—that is delicious—coppa and Calabrese, which is spicier. Bresaola is a nice choice if you don’t eat pork.” Some meats present better than others. “We sell a lot of both Serrano ham and prosciutto; Serrano looks a lot better on a board than prosciutto and a lot of people can’t tell the difference,” Foucré says. “It just holds up better, it doesn’t oxidize and get funky looking.” For a gourmet-leaning crowd, consider adding a slice of pâté or a jar of rillettes.
“I like to include a spreadable item, whether that’s spreadable cheese, jam, or honey,” says Broome-Hinton. At Chi-cuterie, Parker carries locally made jams that pair well with specific cheeses. “We have a peach-chamomile jam that goes well with a young Gouda, and an aged cheddar-Parmesan blend that is great with a tart cherry and white-tea jam,” she says. Whole-grain mustard is a classic accompaniment for sharp aged cheese and salami, too.
“I like to incorporate seasonal fruit because you really get to enjoy what’s best at the moment,” Flores says. Slice and fan fall-harvest fruits such as apples and pears, or add a pop of color with wheels of winter citrus. Dried fruit such as apricots, cherries, and figs are a good choice in the winter when seasonal fresh fruit is lacking.
Olives, cornichons, and other pickled vegetables add a touch of acidity to offset the richness of cheese and charcuterie. “With things like olives, we put them in a little dish so they’re not getting all over everything,” Foucré says. “Some people don’t want olives and don’t want to eat anything an olive has touched.”
“To really fill in all the gaps, you would go in with garnish,” Flores says. “So in the summer, I like to use mint and edible flowers. In the winter, rosemary and thyme look absolutely gorgeous.”
Prefer to leave it to the pros?
These local businesses specialize in delectable boards and party spreads.
“My general rule of thumb is two ounces of cheese per person and one ounce of meat per person,” says Flores. Parker suggests working in odd numbers, which are pleasing to the eye when arranged on the board: “Try choosing three cheeses or five cheeses. Or maybe three cheeses and two meats, which add up to five.”
Pick a surprise element
Parker likes to include an unexpected item on her boards as a conversation-starter. “I love things that people wouldn’t expect, whether it’s tropical fruit or edible flowers,” she says. “When someone comes into our store, I’ll say, ‘Here’s a cheese that pairs well with these handmade caramels, or this vanilla-infused popcorn from a local artisan.’ It’s fun to have some elements on your board that are not necessarily the typical, run-of-the-mill meat and cheese.”
Focus your options
If you are feeling overwhelmed, Parker suggests choosing a single point of inspiration. “It can be something as simple as your grandmother’s china pattern,” she says. “Look at the colors in the pattern and try to replicate that in the food choices—so that narrows your focus rather than going to the cheese market and being totally overwhelmed.
Phil Vettel’s Picks for Holiday Dining
This trio of hotel restaurants have seasonal revelry wrapped up
Dining out takes on a special significance during the holidays, from family gatherings to year-end celebrations of all kinds. Restaurants understand this, of course, and from decor to menu try to raise their game accordingly. Of the many choices available, here are three to consider when you’re looking for festive holiday fare and ambience.
The Drake Oak Brook
2301 York Rd., Oak Brook
This hotel complex doesn’t hold back when it comes to decking out for the holidays. Think large nutcrackers, a decorated tree, lights strung throughout the gardens, and a chef-created gingerbread house that’s a replica of the hotel property. The Polar Bear lounge pop-up will pack the verandas with cascading lights, large ornaments, and what one representative called “endless garland.”
The Colonial Room’s regular menu features such classic dishes as chateaubriand for two and other steaks and chops, but there will be two special holiday meals as well. The Thanksgiving buffet ($95; $30 ages 6—12) will feature a carving station (turkey, prime rib), raw bar, omelet and waffle stations, and more; special upgrades (seafood tower, chateaubriand, sweets tower) also will be available.
The Christmas Eve buffet ($85; $30 ages 6—12) will offer an antipasto display, cheese board, seafood bar, and such hot entrées as macadamia-crusted whitefish, maple-mustard-crusted steak with pineapple relish, and pepper-crusted rack of lamb. Other dining options to consider include afternoon tea ($45, glass of Champagne included), served from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and the Colonial Room’s Sunday Champagne brunch.
For that winter wonderland vibe, the Drake’s eight outdoor heated igloos will be open for private dining starting November 11. While these fully enclosed domes each boast a small heater, you’ll still want to bundle up a bit. Each igloo has its own theme and guest capacity, ranging from four to eight diners. Be sure to make a reservation for lunch (11 a.m. to 2 p.m., not available Sundays) or dinner (2:15 to 10 p.m.) for a maximum two-hour dining time.
15 S. River Ln., Geneva
The Herrington Inn & Spa along the Fox River is an ideal holiday destination, from the decorated tree at the foot of the lobby stairs to the lighted garland strings that seemingly are everywhere. Atwater’s, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, looks as though it had been pulled from a Currier & Ives painting; the circular dining room is warm and sedate, and its floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the property’s garden and the river beyond—an ideal view, winter or summer.
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day (and brunch on Sunday), Atwater’s has a sophisticated, wide-ranging American menu. During the holidays, expect traditional specials such as turkey, rack of lamb, and prime rib. The intimate dining room can accommodate parties up to eight.
“The holidays at the Inn are magical—the Old World charm, the warmth of the lobby bar, and Atwater’s,” says director of sales and marketing Lisa Van Bortel. ”My favorite thing is to sit by the fireplace with the twinkle lights on and enjoy a hot bowl of our famous butternut squash soup; this has been on our menu since we opened almost 30 years ago. There is nothing like it.”
2155 City Gate Ln., Naperville
The Italian restaurant inside the Hotel Arista (part of the CityGate Center complex) consists of the main dining room; a horseshoe-shaped, kitchen-view food bar; and a side market that carries everything one might need (breads, cheeses, pastas, sauces, wine) for meal preparation at home. Indeed, for Thanksgiving, the market will offer a fully stocked and precooked dinner kit (turkey, stuffing, sides) to reheat and enjoy in your own dining room.
This will be just the second holiday season for chef de cuisine Ian Schlegel, who joined the restaurant in April last year. “Because of our restaurant’s mission, it’s all about what’s in season,” Schlegel says. “Deep, earthy and spiced flavors. Stuffed pastas, butternut squash, cranberries. And deep, hearty meat sauces that just give you the feel of home.”
Special holiday dinners include a Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian Christmas tradition, with Che Figata’s version taking place at its December 14 Table Italiano Wine Dinner. Pescato Del Giorno will be among the dishes served. The restaurant’s December 31 offerings will feature a set-price menu inspired by a Roman New Year’s Eve.
“The decor situation will change with the season,” Schlegel says. “An overall feeling of fall around Thanksgiving, and then we’ll have winter landscapes, with snow-covered trees and more of a frosty effect.”
Let’s Talk Turkey
This Waterman family farm has been raising gobblers for generations
Robert Kauffman’s farm-raised turkeys have become so beloved that they’ve developed their own distinctive brand identity. For many, come holiday season, a Ho-Ka turkey is a must for their table. It’s not unusual, in fact, for some folks to call their local butcher every November—whether it’s Casey’s in Naperville or Tischler’s Market in Plainfield—and ask for Ho-Ka turkeys by name. “We get compliments about fresh Ho-Ka turkeys every year,” says Dan Skulavik, the meat manager at Casey’s.
You could go as far as to argue that Kauffman is the only living turkey farmer in America with actual groupies. No one’s lining up, of course, for backstage passes to see how he raises and dresses his turkeys—a domestic breed called broad breasted whites—on his family-run farm in Waterman, Illinois. But Kauffman’s customers have been known to write him fan mail, outlining in blushing detail how his birds are juicier and more flavorful than anything else on the market. Some say they refuse to serve their friends and family anything but a Ho-Ka bird on Turkey Day.
Small 10-pound birds. Big 40-pound birds. Frozen birds. Fresh birds. Male toms and female hens. Kauffman raises and processes them all. Truth be told, he doesn’t put much stock in all those fancy marketing ploys that others have trotted out in recent years. He’s not convinced that “organic” or “free-range” or “natural” on the label necessarily mean that much. Better to keep in mind just two things, he says: The most-pallid-tasting turkeys tend to be the ones that are shot full of water and sodium solutions. And the best ones are stamped with ingredient labels that include only one word—and that’s “turkey.”
Which begs the question: What’s the secret? Why are Ho-Ka birds so much better than everyone else’s? Kauffman, who’s been asked this question too many times to count, says he doesn’t really know why. Maybe it’s because his family has been working the same plot of land since shortly after the Civil War, when his great-grandfather decided to settle in Illinois after being released from Andersonville prison. Maybe the secret, he muses, is that he uses older equipment from the 1950s and 1960s to dress and pluck his turkeys. Or maybe people have fallen in love with his turkey because he doesn’t just sell them whole. He’s perfected his own spice mix for his turkey brats and breakfast sausages, and he processes his ground turkey by using skin-on thigh meat, which winds up looking a lot like ground chuck.
People are always asking him the best way to cook a turkey, and his answer is always the same: He likes to roast it in a giant pan, then wrap it in aluminum foil midway to prevent overcooking. He says, after hearing so much about various brines, that he tried different rubs and solutions but didn’t taste much of a difference.
This holiday season, his workforce will balloon from 10 people to 100 to meet the demand from all those Ho-Ka turkey groupies. Last year he dressed and plucked and shipped almost 58,000 birds in November and December alone. He expects a similar output this year.
Maybe the secret, says Kauffman rather matter-of-factly, is that he starts with good birds to begin with and takes the time to raise them right.
When turkey’s the star of your holiday meal, bolster your wine-pairing skills with this crib sheet from Master Sommelier Emily Wines, vice president of wine and beverage experiences for Cooper’s Hawk restaurants.
Appetizers Recommendation: Champagne Low-alcohol, high-acid bubblies will literally make your guests’ mouths water and amplify the taste of premeal snacks.
Main Course Recommendation: Light reds For a traditional turkey dinner, you can’t go wrong with a light-bodied Pinot Noir, which won’t overwhelm your salads or sweet potatoes and will deliver an undercurrent of cranberry that pairs beautifully with turkey. If you’re pining for something other than a Pinot, opt for a fresh fruity Beaujolais Nouveau, which are released every year on the third Thursday of November.
Dessert Recommendation: Varies Look for wines that can spar, sweet note for sweet note, with whatever’s on your dessert table. Grab a lighter Moscato to pair with fruity desserts; a rich ice wine for caramelized treats; or a tawny port for dishes redolent with apple, pecan, or pumpkin flavors.
Raise Your Glass
Use Some Common Scents
David Ligeski, the head bartender at the City Grille in Naperville, insists that richly scented winter cocktails have an uncanny ability to jump-start memories of Christmases past. His holiday old-fashioned, for example, is a traditional blend of bourbon and bitters that’s spritzed with a bittersweet blast of cranberry-infused simple syrup. Ligeski adds an extra sparkle by torching a sprig of rosemary, tucking it into the glass, and sending it out—gently smoking—to his guests. To re-create this aromatic twist at home, he recommends purchasing a crème brûlée torch and experimenting with various aromatic herbs and spices.
2 oz. Buffalo Trace
¾ oz. cranberry simple syrup
5 dashes orange bitters
1 bar spoon of Filthy cherry juice
Stir in a glass filled with ice for 10 to 15 seconds, strain into a fresh glass over fresh ice. Garnish with charred rosemary sprig and orange express.
Let’s Get Eggy With It
Some of bartender Sarah Geist’s regulars at barrel + rye in Geneva insist that the holidays wouldn’t shine quite as bright without her seasonal spiked eggnogs. Over the years, she’s experimented with all sorts of festive mix-ins, from sweet oatmeal to spicy peppermint. The secret, she says, is to avoid overwhelming the base eggnog. People who love eggnog want to taste it in their drinks. This year, she’ll be pouring a pecan pie nog made with candied pecan simple syrup and a dash of nutmeg.
Pecan Pie Nog
1 oz. homemade pecan syrup
1 oz. condensed milk
1 oz. whole milk
2 oz. Buffalo Trace bourbon
2 dashes vanilla
1 egg white
Start by making your own pecan syrup (combine 1 cup water, 2 cups brown sugar, ½ cup toasted pecans, 1 tablespoon cinnamon and a dash nutmeg in a pan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes). For the drink itself, combine all ingredients and dry shake and ice and shake again. Strain into a coupe and top with candied pecans.
Mugging for the Camera
Seth Udell, a bartender at Osteria by Fabio Viviani in Downers Grove, says spiking warm drinks, whether cocoa or coffee, may be the simplest way to whip up a quick holiday tipple but can just as easily send you right over your proverbial sleigh. “Unlike with iced drinks,” Udell says, “you’re not going to see any dilution over time.” So start with a light pour and adjust accordingly. The Osteria’s Santa Secret Cocoa, for instance, is spiked with rum or bourbon, peppermint schnapps, and vanilla syrup then topped with mini marshmallows and a candy-cane swizzle stick swoosh of spice and color.
Santa’s Secret Christmas Cocoa
1.5 oz. rum or bourbon
½ oz. vanilla syrup
¼ oz. peppermint schnapps
7 oz. hot chocolate
Mix everything together in an Irish coffee glass or coffee mug, top with mini marshmallows to cover the glass, toast them with a torch. Garnish with a peppermint candy stick and straw.
Drink Your Dessert
Interested in eliciting some genuine coos of heavenly delight? Whip up a cocktail that can serve as a stand-alone dessert and pair well with pies and sweets. Patrick Timmis, of Santo Cielo in Naperville, has perfected a dairy-free riff on a Pink Squirrel that’s made with cashew milk. It’s as frothy as a cappuccino but tastes like Christmastime potpourri: raisin notes from the sherry and port, a warm nuttiness from the praline liquor, and a dash of sugarplum from the grenadine.
¾ oz. grenadine
½ oz. PX sherry
½ oz. Plantation dark rum
1 oz. praline pecan liqueur
1.5 oz cashew milk
Shake with ice and strain into a coupe-style or Georgian glass. Grate nutmeg over the top.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images, iStock images, Bellyfull Boards, The Drake Oak Brook, Autograph Collection, Elan Photography, CityGate Hospitality LLC, Rodrigo Cano (Night panda); Barrel + Rye; and Osteria by Fabio Viviani.
Mexican American playwright has her world premiere
The eldest daughter of Mexican immigrants in a family of seven children, Chicago playwright Nancy García Loza didn’t see her first play until she was 27. It was a feminist retelling of the Mexican Revolution, and she was hooked—but not on acting or directing. She looked at the many scribbles in her notebook margins over the years—ideas, pieces of dialogue, character sketches—and knew she wanted to emerge from the margins and never go back.
In 2011 she started volunteering in Latino theater and in 2015 formed a Latinx writers’ group. After writing in her kitchen for a dozen years, she’s scored her first world premiere—BULL: a love story runs through November 20 at Paramount’s Copley Theatre in downtown Aurora. Now 39, she’s juggling two babies: her play and newborn son, Dune. And there’s more on the way: She’s under commission with Steppenwolf Theatre (Ascent), Goodman Theatre (Rust), and the National Museum of Mexican Art (Pénjamo: A Pocha Road Trip story and Macha).
Q: What’s your writing process like?
A: I am a self-taught writer. I learned to tell stories in the kitchen by watching who made who laugh, who made who cry, who held everyone’s attention, who would get asked to “tell that one story again” over and over, who was the keeper of stories in my expansive family that spread out from Jalisco to Chicago and everywhere in between. I learned to tell stories from people that never saw a play and lived hard, fast, and messy. Lyrical people who sang without stages and told big stories.
I was being blessed with observing the epic and flawed humanity of the adults all around me from a very young age. While I may have been a pissed-off, mostly obedient Mexican daughter, I picked up a pen, clawed my way out of a massive box of expectations, and became myself: an irreverent, terca, pocha writer.
Q: BULL was workshopped through Paramount Theatre’s Inception Project. How did that work?
A: I had a play with a name, I knew the characters, I knew the story, and I knew the world. I had not written a single page. Some plays are ready to pour out—this is one of them. I wrote this play in 30 days. Within two weeks following the virtual public reading, I got a call from Paramount and heard the best news: “We must bring this play, your play, to stage.” After 12 years of writing in my kitchen, I was down the road to my first world premiere.
Q: How would you describe the play?
A: It follows a recently incarcerated man who dealt drugs, got caught, and served his time. He is eager to return to his old Chicago neighborhood, Lakeview, now unrecognizable. While he wants to resume life with his family, as if time didn’t stop, he is confronted with how much has moved on without him. This play is a love story about all kinds of love: family, community, and the places we call home.
Q: What did you love about this project?
A: The artist-driven process. Building my own core creative team is integral to my process. If you work on a Nancy play, she comes with her crew: My longtime director and friend, Laura Alcalá Baker, is one of my ride-or-dies. I build intimately with trusted collaborators who are deeply invested in the world I am trying to bring back to life. They have to get it. There is no middle ground, there is no room for lukewarm doubts, because I am determined to bring to stage a body of work, a world, lives, and a Chicago Mexican lyricism that is incredibly specific and living in my head and memory.
Q: Any advice for new writers?
A: Stay curious. Be more curious than anyone about exploring what you don’t know about your play, your story, your characters. I don’t misspend a minute in workshop rooms—I dig and dig and dig. Don’t leave a stone unturned. Don’t be afraid to start over. Don’t be afraid to try a radical idea all the way. Don’t forget that first impulse and spark that demanded: Write me. Love your plays harder than anyone.
Want to secure a place on Santa’s “really nice” list? Start gifting sampler packs of scones from Toni Brawley’s Scone House Café in Winfield (0S050 Winfield Rd.) She bakes 75 different flavors, from savory cheese-sausage treats to gingerbread and eggnog flavors. “They’re firm as a well-baked cookie on the outside,” Brawley says, “and as soft and moist as a muffin on the inside.” One taste and you’ll never look at a quaint doughnut quite the same way again. —P.G.
This pâtisserie specializes in handmade French treats
You couldn’t dream up a sweeter storyline for a Hallmark Channel romance if you tried. French-born pastry chef Jérôme Landrieu crosses the Atlantic to teach at Barry Callebaut, a high-end chocolate academy in Chicago. Alexis Karter joins the company to coordinate classes and host events, knowing absolutely zero French. He’s an intense perfectionist who can work miracles with flour and cocoa powder; she’s a cheery conversationalist with a gift for marketing. Over time, they melt their way into each other’s hearts—then move to Naperville to launch a wholesale macaron business.
They name their shop A La Folie, a French superlative used to infer a crazy kind of love. And true to the shop’s name, Landrieu’s macarons prove so achingly delicious—they’re filled with rich caramels, ganache, and fruit jellies rather than humdrum buttercreams—that luxury hotels and Michelin-starred chefs come calling. Soon they’re producing 6,000 macarons per day. But Alexis and Jerome think their neighbors deserve the really good stuff, too, so they open a new grab-and-go retail operation, which debuted in September.
Lucky for us, it showcases all of Landrieu’s talents. Macarons, of course, but also lemon-curd tarts, croissants, mille-feuille, and French-style crème glacée ice cream. “There’s no reason why French pastries can’t be delicious and approachable, too,” Karter says. Translation? Prepare to fall madly in love yourself.
Brian Goewey has quietly become of the most successful (if least well-known) restaurateurs in the west suburbs. His latest, Gia Mia in Naperville, is the ninth restaurant for his group, his third in the last 18 months, and his sixth Gia Mia overall.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t get into the restaurant game until 2011.
The Naperville Gia Mia, opened in August, is the most visually impressive of the group. It sits in the Old Nichols Library (which served as the town’s public library for nearly 90 years) that has been lovingly restored, particularly its beautiful yellow-brick and limestone exterior. Red umbrella-topped tables line the raised patio, offering about 85 outdoor seats. Inside, the high-ceiling dining room seats nearly 150; a few book displays hark to the building’s origins.
The Gia Mia locations have virtually identical menus, and the big draw is pizza. Custom-made, brick-lined, and wood-fired ovens produce pizzas boasting thin but substantial crusts and blistered, chewy heels. You’d call them Neapolitan pizzas, but it’s not a term that Goewey prefers. “I call them California Neapolitan,” he says. “Straight-up Neapolitan is a little limited in terms of toppings.”
Gia Mia offers traditional pies, including margherita, quattro formaggi, and primavera versions but also pepperoni with banana peppers, the Livia with spicy soppressata (a nod to another Goewey restaurant), and the North End (inspired by a trip Goewey took to Boston) featuring Italian sausage and spicy cherry peppers. My favorite pizza is topped with roasted pears, caramelized onions, Gorgonzola cheese, and balsamic syrup; I’m tempted to order that one for dessert sometime.
Among the appetizers, veal meatballs over creamy polenta with a sturdy tomato sauce are a good bet, as are Parmesan-dusted arancini (fried rice balls). Zucchini fries, with lemon and Parmesan, arrive piping hot, and charred cauliflower dusted with pine-nut breadcrumbs pick up sweet and salty notes from honey and olives.
Toasts, whether it’s the wild mushroom toast or the prosciutto and fig bruschetta, are piled high with ingredients—so much so that the first order of business is deciding how to attack them (use a knife and embrace the messiness). Asiago gnocchi and ricotta with roasted tomato sauce and Pecorino Romano cheese is the best bet to order when all you want is a little pasta.
Salads include the Not Your Classic Caesar, a dish Goewey tweaks only slightly. “We shave the romaine, rather than plate the hearts,” he says, “and kick it up with a good anchovy-and-black-pepper dressing.” (The salad also includes cherry tomatoes—an unconventional but tasty addition.)
Pastas tend toward the traditional—rigatoni Bolognese, lobster ravioli and shrimp, paccheri vodka—highlighted by the short rib gnocchi. The same Asiago gnocchi offered among the appetizers returns with fork-tender short rib meat, carrots, and tomatoes in a rich demi-glace sauce. As we head into the cold-weather months, this hearty dish will likely become a fan favorite.
There are four entrées (Bigger Plates, per the menu), among them twin beef fillets with Broccolini and carrots as well as pan-roasted salmon over herbed farro and asparagus. Chicken piccata, featuring a nicely balanced lemon-caper-white-wine sauce, is an especially good choice.
An additional entrée, at least to me, is hidden among the greens. The tenderloin steak salad places a four-ounce fillet on a pile of Bibb lettuce with mushrooms, peppers, Gorgonzola and more, with a pesto vinaigrette. The portion is substantial, and at $19.75, the dish is a real bargain. The only thing I’d recommend is serving the steak sliced, tagliata di manzo style, to add a bit of color and make the salad easier to eat.
There are a few attractive desserts; unique to the Naperville location is the Dolcinos flight, a sampler of four desserts (chocolate tartufo cake, ricotta cheesecake, vanilla bean gelato, and tiramisu) nestled in adorable little teacups. Each is $3, or $11 for four, and when all you need is a bite of something sweet, this is a terrific option.
The wine list is heavily but not exclusively Italian, and prices are moderate; there are plenty of bottles at $40 and less, and by-the-glass options top out at $13. If you want to be even more fiscally shrewd, head to Gia Mia on Wednesdays, when any bottles normally $60 or less go for half price.
There’s also a $13 lunch menu, offered every day, and on Mondays, pizzas are half price. Just know that “pizza Mondays” are already very popular.
“I started the Monday special pre-COVID,” Goewey says. “I was tired of slow Mondays. Now it’s the third-busiest day of the week.”
Photos courtesy of Kelly Vanderploeg (patio and pizza) and Natalie Meynart (Bruschetta and bar)
It’s pretty much rolling farmland as far as the eye can see. This is eastern Iowa, after all.
That is, until you enter Maquoketa Caves State Park, and suddenly a world of towering bluffs, forested ravines, and a system of caves appears.
“They are Iowa’s hidden gem,” says Ryland Richards, natural resource technician at the park. “They are some of the only caves in the country that are open for self-exploration without a guide. Most cave systems, you must enter with someone. They are also an unexpected location because we are surrounded by cornfields and towns.”
Prepare to spend some time happily wandering both above and below ground. “We have 15 different caves that vary in difficulty,” Richards says. “The Natural Bridge and [17-ton] Balanced Rock are two of the main features people come to see. The main cave, Dancehall, has lights and a sidewalk.”
In fact, actual dances were held in the caves in the early 1900s, all part of the park’s storied history. Millenniums of water erosion on limestone bedrock created the caves. “They have been explored since they were made, but our earliest records date to the 1800s when they were rediscovered by two hunters,” Richards says. A popular place for picnics and hikes since the 1860s, the area became a 370-acre state park in 1933 (one of Iowa’s earliest) and now averages about 300,000 visitors a year (plus 700 or so overwintering bats). A six-mile trail links the caves, winding through—and up and down—the lush scenery and geologic formations. “The caves are accessible by those who can walk up and down stairs to enter and exit them,” Richards says. “Out of the 15 caves, 10 are crawling caves and five are walk-through caves.” Most visitors stick to the walking caves, leaving the tight spots to the serious spelunkers.
“Dress appropriately—it’s about 55 [degrees] in the caves. Bring clothes that could get dirty,” Richards says. “Flashlights are recommended but not needed in the walk-through caves. You can spend anywhere from an hour to eight here, depending on what you see. You will see something amazing that you wouldn’t have known was in Iowa.”
More to MAquoketa
From March through November, Maquoketa Caves State Park offers a campground as well as primitive hike-in campsites. Reservations are required through iowadnr.gov.
Enjoy a float on the nearby Maquoketa River. Outfitters like Maquoketa River Rentaloffer inner tubes, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, floating coolers, as well as shuttle service and guided tours. maquoketariverrental.com
Grab a bite to eat at Mega’s Grill & Eatery (101 McKinsey Dr., Maquoketa), open for breakfast and lunch daily and dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. Waffles, burgers, and steak are all on the menu, as is a chicken strips on French toast sandwich.
New Naperville clothing boutique blends Nashville style and an urban vibe
Is your fashion style a little bit country and a little bit rock ’n’ roll? Look no further than Dash of Nash in Naperville to find the fringed jackets, faded denim shorts, and corset tops that evoke country flair but with an urban edge.
The Nash in the store’s name is short for Nashville. And just as the name implies, Dash of Nash features women’s clothing and accessories that are trendy with a country twist. Some of the offerings include faux-leather leggings, flannel plaid shirts and shackets, satin tanks, and short sets.
Owner Erica Sebesta owes her interest in fashion to a shopping trip with her father when she was 8. “The skirt I got was denim with rhinestones, which kind of makes sense when you consider what I am doing now,” she says.
Her mother, Monica Sebesta, who helps out in the store, says it was easy to see that her daughter’s future would be in fashion. “When she was in school, she’d wake up every day and plan her outfits as if the [school] halls were her runway,” Monica says.
With her fashion interest already well established, Sebesta’s fascination with all things country was ignited when she went to her first concert, headlined by Shania Twain. She has taken that country sensibility with an edge and applied it to the store’s decor, which features tan hardwood floors, glowing pink neon signs, cowboy hats, a pink guitar, and a pink retro-style telephone next to a sign: “Cute clothes are calling you.”
Sebesta has come a long way from her first foray into fashion, which was an online clothing business launched in 2016 in her parents’ basement. After six months, she opened her first store, Homegrown Honey, in 2017 on the second floor at 214 South Main Street in Naperville. Seeking more visibility, she closed Homegrown Honey and opened Dash this summer. Sebesta chose Naperville as the location for both stores because of its vitality. “There is always something going on here,” she says.
For Sebesta, the best part of the business is helping shoppers select clothes and accessories that they’ll feel great wearing. “I love being able to work with customers in helping them curate their own style and put outfits together,” she says. “I love helping others feel confident and trendy.”
The Naperville Heritage Society broke ground this summer on the Innovation Gateway at Naper Settlement. Designed to be the new “front door” to the 13-acre living-history museum, the 4,800-square-foot welcome and education center will include a digital wall exhibit that invites visitors to self-curate their own history journey. “The total project cost is over $5 million, and the building includes an endowment,” says Denise Cartina of Naper Settlement. “The funding is provided by private donors, grants, and the City of Naperville’s $1.2 million contribution.” Construction is slated to be completed by late summer 2023. —M.L.
Naperville magazine is the premier lifestyle living publication of Chicago’s west suburbs