One of the three wonderful food tours I took in Chicago was the Gateway to the West Loop restaurant tour by Chicago Food Planet. For this tour, I had to take the “L” out to the Morgan Station and I found the train system very easy to navigate and a pleasant experience. I loved that you can buy your train passes all right in the Ventra app and even just tap your phone to get through the gate. So easy!
Starting off, our meeting spot was at our first tasting, Formento’s, which is a beautiful Italian restaurant. Right next door is their more casual takeaway sub shop called Nonna’s. Our group was welcomed by our lovely and knowledgeable guide, Faith. As a very special treat, our group got to go inside and eat in the restaurant even though they weren’t open for the day yet. On a blistering hot and muggy day, it was such a luxury to sit down in the cool air conditioning in such a lovely environment.
At Formento’s, our tasting was for Nonna’s Meatball along with a glass of red wine. It was a 2018 Hedges Family Estate C.M.S. Cabernet Sauvignon from the Columbia Valley. The meatball was absolutely delicious and very clearly handmade.
This whole tour centered around the old Fulton Market area of the West Loop, which was the old meatpacking district of Chicago. So many old buildings were meat processing factories, food storage and shipping, all within easy access to railroads to connect with the rest of the country. Over time, these buildings were abandoned but now house a vibrant restaurant scene that attracts creative chefs from all over. The West Loop is known as the unofficial “restaurant district” of Chicago.
One of these renovated markets is now the Time Out Market food hall, a trendy hub for chef-driven eateries all in a communal dining space. It is made up of 18 food concepts over 3 floors (including a rooftop bar), and many world flavors are represented. You can find sushi, ramen, Italian, burgers, BBQ and Southern food, pizza, a Polish-Colombian fusion, along with European bakeries and desserts.
At our tasting, we tried the Caramelized Chicken Dumplings from Urban Belly. This sample also came with a glass of “Lost Palate,” an IPA by Chicago brewery Goose Island. I absolutely loved this dish. It was spicy, sweet, sticky and flavorful.
Roman Pizza in Chicago
Our next tasting brought us to Bonci pizza, which I was really excited about. I was familiar with Bonci after visiting Rome. Although I never actually made it to Bonci in Rome, I definitely knew about it but just couldn’t work it into my schedule. I did, however, eat so much pizza al taglio in many other places. Outside of Rome, Chef Bonci only has two other locations: this one in Chicago, and Miami.
There is no real menu at Bonci; you just need to walk in and see what they have that day, or at that particular minute. They use seasonal and fresh ingredients to throw together a vast collection of fun and inventive combinations. Our guide explained to us that previously on this tour there was just one flavor offered to all the tour guests, but in a recent change they have begun letting each guest choose their own flavor. Which is very exciting! It’s so hard to choose.
In an endless pizza case, with barely enough room to squeeze down single file, you make your way down and let the server cut off a piece with scissors in the size you want. The pizza is priced by weight, not by the slice. Then they finish baking it off in a hot oven to melt it all together.
My choice was a sundried tomato-ricotta (or was it burrata?)-arugula with a beautiful drizzle of olive oil and salt. Amazing. It was paired with pale ale “Fist City” by Chicago local Revolution Brewing.
Cupcakes and Donuts
The last two stops on the tour were for desserts and sweeter things, and they happened to be right next to each other. The next to last tasting was a cupcake from Molly’s Cupcakes. If you remember, I went to Molly’s in New York not once but twice on two different food tours there! So Molly’s really loves the food tour companies. I didn’t even realize there was a location in Chicago, but it turns out there are five in Chicago, 1 in New York (the other one I went to), and 2 in Iowa.
The thing with Molly’s is that it’s based on the founder’s 3rd grade teacher who used to bake her students cupcakes for their birthdays. All the locations have chalkboards, periodic tables, lockers, and swings to sit in!
We enjoyed a full sized red velvet cupcake with cream cheese icing. Always a good one!
Lastly, we headed next door to Do-Rite Donuts which has this fantastic combination of being a donut shop and also a fried chicken joint. Our tasting included a buttermilk original donut, and a cup of their coffee. Even though I was incredibly hot already, I did want to taste their coffee and I’m glad I did because it was really, really good. Honestly the donut was one of the best ones I’ve ever had. The texture, flavor, sweetness level were all just perfect. I was really impressed.
The Gateway to the West Loop Tour by Chicago Food Planet was incredibly enjoyable! I really liked exploring this neighborhood that I might not have ventured to on my own during my trip. From its history as the meatpacking district, to its revitalization in the 80s and 90s into one of the hottest culinary areas in the country, it’s a wonderful place to host a food tour.
Check out Chicago Food Planet if you’re in the area for a delicious way to spend an afternoon.
New Hampshire Food Photography
Erika Follansbee is a published Goffstown, NH food photographer whose job is to make food look amazing. She is available for hire to help small restaurants and cafes to create beautiful images of their dishes to use for marketing, websites, and social media. Magazine-quality food images are the best form of advertisement.
Erika is also a wedding photographer. Visit www.erikafollansbee.com for more information.