Imagine teleporting to Italy right after you just worked the busiest 7 hour shift of your life. Then imagine devouring the finest pizza and gelato you could imagine on one of the nicest nights of the summer. That was pretty much how I spent this past Sunday night and had no complaints about it whatsoever.
Alright maybe I wasn’t teleported to Italy exactly but you could say I went pretty close. One thing my college is really known for is their study abroad program and how life-changing their campus in Rome is. Unfortunately, with my major and the way my classes worked out these past two years, I was not/will not be able to partake in the program. Honestly I’m not too bummed considering Italian food is not my favorite (we all know this chickpea loves her mediterranean dishes more than anything) but I always have wondered how the cuisine would taste in another country. Authentic and REAL. No preservatives like most of the Italian and worldly eats in America.
When I was invited to Siena Tavern this past Sunday night, I had a premonition my experience might be close to traveling abroad. As one of the most popular restaurants in the River North area of Chicago, I had heard nothing but wonderful comments about it. If looking at the pizza alone while walking by their outdoor seating does not make you drool, I think you might need to get your eyes checked.
As I arrived quite early, I couldn’t resist getting seated 30 minutes before my reservation time. Even though their outdoor seating looked beyond gorgeous, decked out in string lights and plants, I chose to sit inside in an elevated section of their dining room. I figured I would sit down for a bit and take in the atmosphere before ordering but if you take one glance at their menu, you’ll want everything within seconds.
Crudo options, an array of different meats and cheeses, an antipasti list including my favorite appetizer ever… OCTOPUS! I don’t see how someone couldn’t find a good dish on a menu like this. Located a block from the Chicago River and open until 2a.m. on weeknights, this is the perfect post-work spot. For those who are of age, a cocktail and some bruschetta doesn’t sound half bad.
Since I had not eaten a full meal since before my 9a.m. shift, I knew I was ready to indulge in an app, entree and dessert. Food blogging to the fullest! Originally, I wanted to go for the octopus because I’m a sucker for it but since I was ordering the brussels sprouts pizza which came with fingerling potatoes, I didn’t want to get a dish with potatoes in it. Trying to branch out!
I asked my server about the salads because each one looked as though it would deliver an impeccable taste and presentation. I chose to go with the hearts of palm ($12) and when it was placed in front of me I felt as though I teleported from Chicago to Italy to Hawaii in moments. In my lifetime, I’ve had hearts of palm and always thought of them as the little cubed rounds from a can, never looking like an actual piece of a palm. My waiter told me how the restaurant has fresh palm flown in from Hawaii just for this specific salad. Food flown in from HAWAII!? Now that is what I like to hear. Tropical eats in the city… yum.
Whenever Hawaii experiences tropical storms and these palms aren’t available, the salad is taken off of the menu. Lucky for me I got to experience it! The palms were bright white ribbons layered over the greenest butter lettuce, chunks of grapefruit, marcona almonds, breakfast radish, and sliced avocado. A drizzle of citrus vinaigrette finished it off. I don’t think I had ever seen an avocado as fresh and ripe as the one plated before me and it helped tone down the bitter taste of the grapefruit. I’m not one for creamy or thick dressings/vinaigrettes but the citrus one was not overpowering AT ALL. Perfect components.
From now on, I don’t think I can ever eat canned hearts of palm. I also think I need to fly to Hawaii A.S.A.P. #dailythoughts
When I finished my light and healthy appetizer, it was time to indulge in what Siena Tavern is most known for: their ‘ZA! (Pizza, if you weren’t aware). Out of the eight varieties offered, I knew I had to go for the caramelized brussels sprout ($18) with roasted garlic, charred corn, shaved fingerling potato and white truffle oil. White truffle oil (heart eye emojis for days) can never be passed up.
But because I am a firm believer in snacking and trying an array of different things, I switched up my order a bit and went for a half and half pizza (only the best kind). Half was the caramelized brussels sprouts and the other was the truffle mushroom. The mushroom side came with mozzarella and garlic cream, different than the brussels side but also had truffle oil. Lately I’ve been craving roasted mushrooms of all sorts and when they’re on pizza, I really can’t deny it.
Over the last year I’ve discovered I’m not a huge dairy fan (if you have been following my blog I’m sure you know this), yet when I indulge in it I like to make sure it is good quality stuff and Siena Tavern fits that standard. Not overly cheesy, this pizza was not like your typical deep dish style of cheese – thick and stuffing you to the brim. It was light and extra flavorful. The truffle oil combined with the thin shaving of cheese on top made it creamy but it the simplest way possible. It was the kind of pizza you eat with a knife and fork to savor every bite but also thin and doughy enough to pick up, fold and spoon into your mouth.
The crust was a combination of white, wheat and oat flour. YAY for oat flour (a staple in my baking at home). The white helps bind the dough while the oat gives it texture, especially on the crusty edges. I think the mixture made my love for thin crust pizza grow. Two slices in, I knew I had to save the rest for leftovers if I wanted to indulge in the house made gelato for dessert.
As many people love indulging in pastries and Nutella-filled baked goods for dessert, I just can’t turn down a high quality cup of gelato. Especially when they’re made in-house by pastry chef Amy Arnold. Yet since I wanted to get a taste of more than just one flavor, I pointed my finger right to the gelato flight ($15). The flight includes your choice of four flavors of gelato, each served in separate shot glasses.
Out of 10 flavors to choose from, I went with pistachio (my all time FAVORITE ice cream flavor), coconut almond, vanilla and tiramisu (an Italian classic). I’ve never tried coconut or tiramisu gelato before so it was nice to pick something different. I found it surprising how sometimes your favorite flavors can end up being your least favorite in certain dishes. For example, I love pretty much anything containing coconuts and/or almond but the coconut almond gelato was one of my least favorites!
Through my 20 years of ice cream tasting, I’ve discovered that most people love chunky ice creams (Ben and Jerry’s for example), but I’m that minority that likes hers straight and plain. Ice cream to the point. The pistachio came packed full of pistachio chunks while the coconut had slivers of almonds. Both were delicious, rich and creamy but the real winner was the vanilla.
As I ended my night off with the gelato flight, I probably took a solid 50 pictures of it before, during and after eating it. I am sure I looked like a total psycho to the people around me but hey, dessert always is the most photogenic meal of the day! 🙂
After an evening of indulgent Italian fare, it’s safe to say Siena Tavern became my new favorite restaurant in the Chicago area. I even left calling my family and texting my friends about how amazing my meal was, the wonderful service and the fast-pace at which my food was delivered. I did not see one flaw in the entire experience and I ended up making a reservation the following day for next weekend. So I’d say if you’re looking for a high quality Italian meal filled with flavor, step away from the usual Gino’s East and tourist hangouts and head over to Siena Tavern. Who needs study abroad when you’ve got all of this!?
Siena Tavern (located at 51 W. Kinzie St.) is open Monday through Friday 11:30a.m. to 2:00a.m., Saturday 10a.m. to 3a.m. and Sunday 10a.m. to 2a.m. Saturday & Sunday brunch is served from 10a.m. to 3p.m. For more information on hours you can head to their website here. They serve brunch, lunch, dessert, cocktails and a gluten-free menu aside from dinner!
***Thank you to Siena Tavern for having me. All opinions are my own.***