The air was thick with indecision. It was loaded with panic. And it definitely had the stench of fear all over it. Welcome to the walk-up counter at Trattoria Peppino, where the hungry line is long and the gem of a menu even longer.
Credit my building anxiety to all the regulars in line behind me that know exactly what they wanted. Quick-decision, order-at-the-counter deals are a hellish experience for a chick that labors over every dish and asks millions of questions. Being introduced to a bustling walk-up counter deep in the 'burbs ain't no walk in the park for me.
My suburban travels are pretty much exclusively food-related: Wholly Frijoles up north, Jimmy's Place out west and Restaurante El Salvador down south have worth-going-back-for food. But at heart I'm a city girl desiring city eats, and would have probably never made it to Peppino if not for my taxes. Jimmy, my whipper-smart accountant, has an office in Elmwood Park and kindly offered to take me out for some hearty Italian after our harrowing tax meeting.
I was hyper-suspicious, it being the suburbs and all, but the minute we straggled in I knew the place had the goods. Any Italian restaurant where every single employee has a thick motherland accent is bound to be right on. Though I stumbled over my words at first, I quickly gained my composure, made a snap decision and managed to spit out, "Gimme the caprese and make it a panini."
Jimmy on the other hand, went with the daily special, a pepper and egg sandwich. After we ordered, we found some seats and a basket full of warm bread along with a bowl of fruity olive oil and a pile of grated parmesan cheese was presented. Talk about perfection. I sprayed my dish of olive oil with tons of black pepper and a hit of parmesan, but was soon sopping my bread through the paste that Jimmy had created on his plate. Clearly experienced, he'd concocted a thick olive oil and parmesan goo, which was much better than my attempt at a bread dip.
After a short wait and with crusty bread long-gone, our warm sandwiches were slung out onto a nearby counter (you retrieve your own food here) and I was delighted to plunge into his side of homemade sweet potato chips on the way back to the table. He was barely into his first bite of super-spicy giardiniera smothered, pepper-heavy egg sandwich before I'd polished off half his plate of salty chips. Poor guy! My French fries were tasty but paled in comparison to his slightly soft, bright orange sweet potato chips.
Meanwhile, my caprese panini was heavenly. The crunchy bread was loaded with slabs of soft buffalo mozzarella, thick hunks of roma tomato and slathered with bright green fresh basil dressing (on both sides, thank you very much). After I doctored it up with a hefty side of mayo, became an even more glorious mound of glory. In the end, I guess the suburbs have a few undiscovered secrets up their sleeve; now I just have to track 'em all down and get in line.
The Final Rave: Though I didn't order any (all portions are huge), dessert looked absolutely divine, especially the gigantic slab of made-from-scratch tiramisu.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Robey Pizza Company
The create-your-own gourmet pizza at this Roscoe Village mainstay makes standing in line a little more adventurous. The tomato and pesto thin crust is a winner every time.
Drink it: Potbelly's
The strawberry milkshake at this order-at-the-counter sandwich shop are absolutely mind-blowing. And the tiny sugar cookie wrapped perched around the straw is just as delicious.
Eat it: Ba Le French Bakery & Restaurant
This French/Vietnamese bakery in Little Vietnam is the king of all walk-up eateries. You're lucky to get past the display of chocolate croissants and crispy pork rolls, much less order a hefty sandwich, before the in-the-know crowd behind you starts huffing and puffing.
Get crazy with it: Portillo's Hot Dogs/Barnelli's Pasta Bowl
The variety of menu offerings at this popular downtown (and suburban) pay-before-you-eat is astounding. Try the chopped salad with big chunks of blue cheese and tiny round pasta bits; it could well be the best salad in the city.