When I think of Italian food, a heaping plate of pasta or Neapolitan-style pizza comes to mind. However, Italian sandwiches should not be overlooked. In Italy, a panino or tostino is traditionally served for a light lunch or snack, but you don’t have to be in Italy to find one of these Italian treasures. L’Appetito (30 E. Huron St.), two blocks from the Chicago Red Line stop and Water Tower Campus, is a gem of an Italian deli and grocer.
As I walked into the bustling deli at around 12:30 for lunch, I noticed that no space is wasted in the shop. Two pastry cases and a gelato and coffee bar line the front of the deli, while shelves full of imported Italian goods such as pastas and packaged biscotti run the length of the store and lead to a deli counter in the back.
A cluster of tables for customers to dine in is tucked in a corner by a window. I worked my way back to look at the menu boards and huge deli cases. Pre-made pizzas, paninos and meatballs sat in a heated case. The other case held a large selection of fresh meats such as salami and prosciutto, along with various cheeses. The case also had numerous varieties of Italian deli-style salads, from antipasto salad to Mediterranean tuna salad.
For a light lunch (and to save room for dessert), I chose the pesto pasta salad ($7.99/lb). I got a half-pound of tri-color tortellini stuffed with ricotta in a light pesto sauce. It was delicious — the fresh basil flavor of the pesto balanced with the creamy ricotta on the inside, and pine nuts added a nice crunch. It made for the perfect quick lunch.
On the menu board I also saw arancini ($3.50) — fried risotto balls filled with meat and cheese — and thought I would get one on the side. At most Italian restaurants I’ve been to, the balls are served as an appetizer and are about the size of a ping-pong ball. But the ones in L’Appetito’s case were the size of softballs, (which is how they are traditionally served in Italy). This did not line up with my light-lunch plans, but I will definitely be back to try one.
Despite passing on the arancini, I couldn’t walk by the two pastry cases without buying something. At least 20 varieties of Italian cookies such as sesame biscuits, pistachio cream sandwiches and biscotti were available individually or by the pound. They also had more substantial desserts, such as tiramisu and zeppole, a form of Italian donuts. After reading Yelp reviews, I decided to try a cannoli ($3.50), which are made fresh daily in-house.
The cannoli had a sweet vanilla ricotta filling with chocolate chips, and the ends were dipped in crushed pistachios. The shell was light and crisp without being soggy from the filling, which was perfectly creamy and had a light vanilla flavor without being too sweet. I would highly recommend trying one if you can force yourself to choose from the different dessert offerings.
Knowing I needed something for dinner that night and wanting to maximize the dishes I could try from L’Appetito, I ordered a sandwich to go. The deli offers paninos and Italian subs, but I ordered a traditional cold Italian sandwich.
I chose the parma ($7), which included prosciutto, mozzarella (which I substituted for smoked mozzarella), tomato, basil and olive oil on ciabatta. Even though I did not eat the sandwich until hours later, it still tasted remarkably fresh. The sweet, fresh tomatoes balanced the combination of the salty prosciutto and smoky mozzarella.
My only complaint was that the bread was cut very thick. The ciabatta was soft and delicious and the ingredients all had a strong enough flavor to not be lost in it, but it was essentially an entire loaf of bread with the ingredients thinly interspersed. Seeing as the sandwich was roughly the size of my face, you could probably split one with a friend and still feel quite satisfied.
While I was there, a steady stream of people who looked like they were on their lunch break flowed in and out, which made the atmosphere feel like a true neighborhood deli.
Next time you’re on the downtown campus, do yourself a favor and go to L’Appetito and treat yourself to a cookie (or two) and a cappuccino. Or if you just can’t eat another sandwich from Lu’s, order one from L’Appetito to switch things up. The deli has two locations, the second at the base of the John Hancock building, so you can check out either.