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Sugar&Spice: Johnny Brown Bag
DISH Weekly Dining Guide in Windy City Times
by Meghan Streit

This article shared 3677 times since Wed Sep 19, 2012
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When I first saw a cartoonish, neon green logo with the name "Johnny Brown Bag" pop up on an Andersonville storefront, I was a little confused and not overly excited. But, when I walked by the place, the aroma of garlic and tomatoes simmering and freshly baked pizzas coming out of the oven drew me right in.

Johnny Brown Bag is owned by Jen and Giovanni ("Johnny") Scalzo, the husband-and-wife duo behind Via Carducci in Lincoln Square and Via Carducci La Sorella in Bucktown. Johnny hails from Calabria, Italy, where his passion for food was ignited by his mother's cooking. The bottom line: The Scalzos clearly know their way around an Italian kitchen and the food they serve is refreshingly authentic.

My enthusiasm for Johnny Brown Bag began almost from the moment I sat down. The interior is painted in cool blues and grays, with just a few tables and a handful of seats at the bar if you'd like to watch and see how the sausage is made, so to speak. Johnny Brown Bag caters to customers stopping in for take-out (hence the "brown bag"), but they also deliver and you are more than welcome to linger over a delicious meal at the restaurant. In fact, the staff is so friendly, you feel like you're in someone's home kitchen. On one of my visits, Johnny himself was behind the counter cooking in the small open kitchen. The restaurant is awaiting its liquor license, so it's BYOB for now. Grab a bottle of your favorite vino from the nearby In Fine Spirits.

If I was enthusiastic about Johnny Brown Bag when I entered, I was fanatical after my first few bites of fried calamari. The calamari is tender and the breading is light and crisp. It's served in a mini deep fryer basket. I think that kind of attention to detail in a small café shows that the people cooking the food truly care about the dining experience their customers have.

Johnny Brown Bag's tantalizing menu begins with classic and creative antipasti, a nice selection of Italian small plates and a smattering of fresh salads. More substantial options include an array of pizzas that are to die for, a dozen or so paninis and a wonderfully simple pasta section, where you choose your favorite pasta and pair it with your favorite sauce. I think the best way to experience Johnny Brown Bag is to find a friend (or four) order a few items from each section of the menu and share them all.

As I've already established, the fried calamari won't let you down. For a lighter option, try the grilled version, which is just as tasty, thanks to the delicious garlic and olive sauce it's cooked in. For something a little out of the ordinary, try the arancini, which are billed as "mini rice balls with peas and red sauce." That description scarcely does them justice. For starters, there's nothing mini about these rice balls—they're massive. On the inside is a risotto-like sticky mixture of rice and cheese, which is fried to heavenly perfection. The red sauce that accompanies them is bursting with flavor and filled with chunky tomatoes. The rice balls were so good, I didn't even mind the peas (my most hated vegetable).

I recommend sampling one of Johnny's salads before you carb load on pizza and pasta. The beet salad is light but substantial. The ever-so-slightly wilted spinach and paper-thin almond slices in this salad both pair nicely with the super-fresh red and yellow beets.

My waitress told me the pastas aren't made in house, but wherever they come from is somewhere good—because they are fresh, doughy and delicious. I tried the fettuccine Alfredo, which for a notoriously heavy dish, was surprisingly light. The pasta was coated in Alfredo sauce, but not drenched in it. My favorite pasta so far is the pappardelle. I paired the wide and sturdy noodles with the vodka sauce, which struck the perfect balance between tangy tomato and rich cream. I think the pappradelle would also make an excellent vehicle for Johnny's Bolognese.

Don't leave Johnny Brown Bag without trying one of the pizzas; they are the true stars in what I think is a pretty spectacular lineup of Italian treats. You can build your own pizza by picking and choosing from a wide selection of ingredients or leave it to the pros and order one of the special gourmet pizzas. The topping combinations they've come up with will probably beat the pants off of anything you or I would create, so my advice is to try one of the special pizzas.

My favorite so far has been the "rustica" pizza. The thin and crispy crust is loaded with caramelized red onions, juicy figs and robust Gorgonzola cheese. The sharp pungency of the Gorgonzola perfectly balances the sweetness of the onions and the figs, making for one scrumptious pizza. Even the more basic gourmet pizzas, like the Marghertia and a simple sausage, mushroom, onion and mozzarella pie are a cut above many pizzas. In fact, in a pizza town like Chicago, I think Johnny Brown Bag will be a strong contender and possibly give some reigning champs a run for their money.

The dessert offerings—tiramisu, cannoli and gelato—make common appearances on Italian menus. But there's nothing ordinary about Johnny Brown Bag's versions of these classics, and you won't be getting some tasteless, dried out dessert that was defrosted a few hours ago. In fact, when I ordered a cannoli, Johnny himself took the delicate shell and stuffed it with fresh creamy filling right in front of me. The cannoli was fantastic, but the one dessert I simply couldn't get enough of was the hazelnut gelato. It's thick and creamy, but with the lightness good gelato should have, and the rich hazelnut flavor is apparent, but not overwhelming. Plus, it was served at exactly the right temperature (not too cold). This gelato is, in a word, sublime.

Don't let Johnny Brown Bag's cartoonish exterior fool you. The folks in the kitchen are very serious about turning out top-notch Italian cuisine that rivals that of many more expensive restaurants. I'm already becoming a regular at Johnny Brown Bag, and I think this a place that will keep Andersonville residents coming back again and again. In fact, I predict that this quirky café quickly will become a fixture in the neighborhood.

Johnny Brown Bag is located at 5406 N. Clark; call 773-270-2522 or visit .

Do you need some more Sugar & Spice in your life? Follow me on Twitter: @SugarAndSpiceMS—for inside scoop and commentary on Chicago's dining scene.

This article shared 3677 times since Wed Sep 19, 2012
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