Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Taste of Melrose Park 2012

This year was the year that I finally managed to drag the Hackknife family up to Chicagoland's premier annual foodie festival, the Taste of Melrose Park, which takes place every Labor Day weekend. What distinguishes this fest from the legions of others happening throughout the area all summer long? Besides the fact that there are over 75 different food vendors, each selling dishes priced at $3 (or even less, in some cases), the majority of those operating the booths are not affiliated with the restaurant industry; that is, much of the food being served is homemade Italian-American (with a smattering of Mexican mixed in to reflect the suburb's changing demographic) from traditional family recipes. This means, instead of the ever-present carnival corn dog and blooming onion, hungry attendees can gorge themselves on the much less-common zucchini cheese puffs and panzerotti, a very enticing prospect for local foodies like myself.

After unloading the wagon and the in-laws from the family truckster, we first wandered into the kiddie section of the festival so the progeny could partake in some games and rides. With child demands abated and fortunate to find a shaded table close to the midway of food booths, Mrs. Hackknife and I thus began our sorties to the various vendors looking for nosh. First up was a pair of tasty baked clams from Vinnie Laraia, served open-face and warm with a Rockefeller-like topping of grated Parmesan and spinach. This was followed by the fried bologna sandwich you now see below.

My dear deceased grandmother from Ohio used to fry up bologna for us in my much younger days; unfortunately, I was a little disappointed that this version didn't quite measure up to hers. The bologna wasn't as crisp around the edges as I'd hoped, nor did it really have much flavor amongst the mustard and fried onions that more-or-less dominated the sandwich (which consisted simply of a single piece of folded-over white bread). And, yes, it was as sloppy as it looked. Much better were the garlic shrimp (prepared in garlic butter like shrimp scampi) and the artichoke casserole (a little heftier than your average spinach artichoke dip) that Mrs. Hackknife discovered.

At this point, we switched over to dessert mode for a bit. I went to get our group some of the celebrated sfingi (deep-fried dough balls dusted with sugar, also sometimes known as zeppole) from the local convent, the Missionary Sisters of St. Charles. The sisters have been frying up sfingi at every Taste of Melrose since its inception over 30 years ago (see photo below) and their booth is the only one at the fest with a consistently-long line.

After a modest 10-minute wait, I returned to our table with my quarry (see photo below). Still warm, the sfingi were denser than I expected, more of a cousin to crumb cake than doughnuts. They weren't quite as mind-blowing as the press I've read made them out to be, but still very tasty.

Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette got in on the act with some fried dough dusted in powdered sugar (the Italian version of an elephant ear). Hackknifette also quite enjoyed her chocolate eclair (as did I - she was kind enough to share a bit).

The homemade cannoli from the Cervones family was amazing, possibly the best I've ever had (see photo below). Sweetened ricotta (or marscapone, I couldn't really tell which) was stuffed into a perfect, crispy pastry shell and studded with chopped pistachios. I probably could have eaten a dozen of these and been quite proud of myself even after suffering the intestinal distress that would surely follow.

Nearly full, we had to make one more purchase before leaving for the night. One of the booths (D&D) was making arancini, a Sicilian dish consisting of a fried rice ball filled with meat sauce, mozzarella, and peas. You may recall that Mrs. Hackknife and I were introduced to a highfalutin version of arancini during the Sicily menu at Next (those were stuffed with saffron and lamb's tongue) - this one was larger and more rustic, clearly closer to the version more likely to be found in casual Sicilian cafes. The rice ball was topped with a little tomato sauce and was scarfed down before I could even get a picture. Just to ensure I was paying tribute to our Hispanic bretheren present at the fest, I was down my last bites with a nice horchata. As we departed into the darkening evening, I realized the beauty of having 75 food vendors - that is, plenty of new sampling to do next year...

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