Pop quiz: You've just been elected president and want to take your spouse out for a nice celebration dinner. You need a restaurant that's up to the occasion. You happen to be from Chicago. Where do you go?
For Barack Obama, the answer was Spiaggia, chef Tony Mantuano's institution of fine Italian dining on the city's Magnificent Mile. One of the (future) first couple's longtime favorites, the restaurant occupies a lakefront perch downtown and boasts views of Lake Michigan to justify its name, which means "beach" in Italian.
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Spiaggia is many things to Mantuano, whom the president has called his favorite chef. It is a monument to the cuisine of his Italian grandparents, who ran a grocery store in Kenosha, Wis., and who would feed Mantuano as a boy on his way home from school. It is a professional cornerstone, with a fabled reputation stretching back nearly three decades. And it is a work in progress: Spiaggia changes its offerings in line with new ingredients and styles of Italian cuisine as they emerge, Mantuano said.
"I've been cooking for a long time, but I'm still as excited today as I was 30 years ago," Mantuano said. "There's so many ingredients that are becoming available -- I think you do always have to change. I wouldn't want to eat my food from 20 years ago; it'd be sort of boring.
"So you do really have to see what's going on. That's why going to Italy, going to Europe, you see what other people are doing, and that was the basis of what Spiaggia became about. We wanted to direct import those flavors. ... We wanted to go right there, we wanted to learn about it, we wanted to find out how we could get that product or that individual style or technique, and import it directly to Spiaggia. And I think that's been one of the keys to our success of being open 26 years."
Before opening Spiaggia in 1984, Mantuano worked in multiple top restaurants in Italy, including Dal Pescatore, which boasts three Michelin stars. He was named a Food & Wine "Best New Chef" in 1986 and almost 20 years later, in 2005, the James Beard Foundation named him "Best Chef: Midwest." Mantuano runs Mangia Trattoria in his hometown of Kenosha and is the chef-partner of Terzo Piano at new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. His publications include "The Spiaggia Cookbook" and "Wine Bar Food," which he co-authored with wife, Cathy.
Mantuano described growing up in an Italian community in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about an hour north of Chicago.
"It's a town where there were a lot of Italian immigrants, and a lot of Italian immigrants from the south. In the old days, there was a Simmons mattress factory. So somebody would come from Calabria --the region where my grandparents are from --they'd establish a toehold, a foothold in Kenosha and then they would send for relatives.
"And pretty soon you had this community of probably 50, 60,000 people that might have been almost 50 percent Italian immigrants. So there was a strong Italian neighborhood there. And my grandparents had the main mom-and-pop grocery store there in Kenosha that served the immigrants, so it was always a part of my life, after school, stopping by their store."
On the road to becoming a chef, Mantuano benefited fantastically, he said, from lessons gleaned in his Italian grandmother's kitchen.