The crust is crucial: l’Aventino brings next-generation Roman pizza to Streeterville

by Doug Rapp

When Adam Weisell would return to Rome after growing up there with his United Nations-employed parents,  he often heard about a new style of pizza. 

People would tell the budding chef about pinsa (pro- nounced “peen-sa”). 

“I’d go eat it and think, ‘This is delicious,’” Weisell said. He was used to the wide, thin-crust Roman pizzas but pinsa had a different crust—a crispy exterior with an airy texture, moist and fragrant inside.

Weisell loves pinsa so much that after nearly two decades cooking for others, including Mario Batali, he’s opened his own restaurant, L’Aventino Forno Romano, 355 E. Ohio St., featuring this “modern play on a very traditional Roman pizza.”

“Chicago is such a pizza town and yet there’s a style that’s vastly underrepresented here,” said Weisell, who has cooked in mostly Italian restaurants in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, including Eataly.

“Pinsa hasn’t come across the U.S. in a big way and I’m hoping to be part of that,” Weisell added, noting that oval flatbread pizzas are popular throughout Italy and Europe. 

Open since late November, l’Aventino has three levels that seat 48, a full-service bar and patio that will open for warmer weather.

“It’s a little funky,” Weisell said. “It reminds me a lot of a Roman restaurant.”   

The menu features several pinsas, with a variety of top- pings and vegetarian-friendly options. Weisell said the crust  is made of soy, wheat and rice  ours and takes 48 hours to ferment, which increases its  flavor and digestibility.

“The reception has been overwhelmingly positive,” Weisell said. “Once people are in the door and eat it, I think most people are hooked.”

Weisell said l’Aventino, named after one of the seven hills ancient Rome was built on, has gotten a lot of foot traffic from people coming in out of curiosity.

“One of the appeals of the location is that people are going to be constantly walking by on their way to the (Northwestern Memorial) hospital or their way home from work,” he said.

Weisell said he’s pleased with how his  first restaurant is going.

“At the end of the day, this is dough with sauce and cheese on it, so it is not that different,” he said. “It’s just a slightly different style.”  

Beating the Blue Monday blues

by Doug Rapp

After a white Christmas, there may be a Blue Monday.

Blue Monday is the name given to what some  consider the most depressing day of the year—usually the third Monday  in January.

The idea originated with a Welsh academic as a marketing plan for a travel company, according to the  British newspaper Tele- graph. A formula involving debt, time past since  Christmas, winter weather and failed New Year’s resolutions add up to the infamous day in January. 

A Northwestern Medicine psychologist believes Blue Monday is a myth.

“There are so many other factors that contribute to depression,” said Dr. Stewart Shankman, chief of  psychology in the department of psychiatry and  behavioral sciences. “I don’t think there’s a certain day of the year that’s the most depressing day.”

Shankman allowed that  even without Blue Mon- day, January may be the  most depressing month of the year.

“What’s interesting is seasonal affective disorder (SAD, a seasonal type of depression), the onset of that actually tends to be in the beginning of winter,  more like October or November,” he said. “As the weather starts to get worse, that’s when you see the onset of SAD. It might hit its peak in January.”

Joyce Marter, a licensed psychotherapist who founded the multi-location counseling practice Urban Balance, agreed.

“More of the population is impacted by SAD in Chicago, due to the cold and gray weather during the winter months,” she said. “Poor weather can worsen any underlying mental health issue, such as anxiety and depression, and decrease motivation.”

Chicago’s brutal winters limit social and physical activity while possibly raising fattening food intake, according to Heloisa G. R. Roach, a psychotherapist at Urban Balance’s South Michigan  Avenue location.

“In January, we might also experience  stressors of post-holiday financial concerns and seasonal unemployment (which)  intensify these feelings,” Roach said.

Several mental health professionals said  even if Blue Monday isn’t an actual phenomenon, they do see more patients in the  first month of the year.

“January does tend to be a busy time for therapists,” said Alicia Hoffman, a licensed  clinical professional counselor with a private practice in New Eastside. 

“A lot of people put off starting therapy during the holidays and understandably wait until after. Some people are coming to fulfill a New Years resolution, and some people come because they had to spend a  lot of time with family which can be triggering and high stress.” 

There are several ways to fight winter de- pression according to healthcare providers.  Light exposure is essential, through limited sunlight or a sun lamp. A healthy diet with plenty of Vitamin D , while avoiding  excessive alcohol use, can help. Maintaining physical activity, whether indoors or  outdoors, is important, along with keeping social contact with friends and family and avoiding too much “hibernation” and screen time. 

Marter added that cultivating a positive, grateful attitude is also beneficial,  and, if possible, arrange a trip somewhere warm between January and April. She said research indicates the anticipation of a vacation could be more helpful than the trip itself. 

If none of these lift your spirits, professionals said it may be time to seek help.  Roach said if you experience a significant  loss of energy in the winter, it’s worth consulting a mental health professional to see  if you’re experiencing a seasonal episode of depression.

Shankman said anyone can have sad  moods, but if it impairs your work or family life, seek treatment.  

Local charities left short-handed after season of giving

by Jacqueline Covey

The Chicago Help Initiative gives free meals to guests who are in need. During the holidays, there is no shortage of volunteers, but post giving-season, this organization, like many non-profits in the area, becomes short-handed.

Executive Director of Chicago Help Initiative Doug Fraser sees an increase in volunteerism around Christmas each year, but he said that’s not when it’s needed. Between now and February, he’s calling on Christmas-time aides to  re-sign up with the organization. New volunteers are  always welcome, too. 

Every Wednesday, volunteers provide sit-down dinners to 130 guests and 70  take out meals as part of the Chicago Help Initiative free meals program. The idea is that providing a dignified experience fulfills a sense of place for participants. Before dinner, some guests take advantage of classes in  technology, creative writing and art facilitated by  Catholic Charities at their community center located at 721 N. LaSalle St.

“We are all a community, we all have each other,” said Sandra Dillion, a student in the knitting group. “We  share our ideas and our thoughts. If we get stuck, we are here to help each other out.”

The first dinner was in  2001 when Catholic Charities opened their space for  a weekly gathering with food donated from local restaurants. A speaker  mini-series was added,  then social and health services were brought in and  over the years relationships have been built between long time volunteers and guests.

“We have volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom have been  coming for years,” said Brigid Murphy of Catholic Charities. “There are lovely  relationships that have developed among volunteers  and supper guests.”

The organization has created a space built on  respect where social stigmas are broken down. For  a couple hours, guests can  enjoy the simple joy of having a warm meal in a warm  place with friends.

“What we’ve learned is  that if you treat a home- less person with respect…  we can get them off the  streets,” founder and president Jacqueline Hayes said.  “Efforts to help are good, but we fill them up with  such good feelings about themselves.”

As a Chicago real estate broker specializing in retail  leasing along the Magnificent Mile and Oak Street,  Hayes sought ways to  help the homeless population that congregated at  storefronts.

Now, 20 years after the  group began, the organization is still growing largely  as a result of a robust volunteer community.

For more information or to volunteer, contact the Chicago Help Initiative, 440 N Wells St., Suite 440, Chicago, (312) 448-0045  or visit chicagohelpinitiative.org  

Crash victim on mission for safer Michigan Avenue

by Mat Cohen

On Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 10 a.m., Phyllis Mitzen walked with a cane along E. Delaware Place and across Michigan Avenue along with her husband, Michael. 

She’s on a mission to make cross- walks safer. 

Six months ago at this crossing, Mitzen was knocked to the ground by a van which rolled on her leg. She spent 15 hours in surgery, 10 days in the hospital and three months in rehabilitation.

On Dec. 16 she walked with a cane to the corner of Michigan and Delaware, meeting with 20 people and Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT)  official Samadi Malihe, to initiate a discussion about making the area safer. 

One of the women supporting the conversation was Janice Lewis. Her son was involved in an accident 10 years ago in Montgomery, Mich. When Lewis went to the hospital she didn’t recognize him.  He died Jan. 4, 2010.

“It changes lives,” she said. “So anything we can do, let’s do it.”

Since 2012 there has been an average of approximately 75 pedestrian deaths each year in Chicago, according to CDOT. The crossings along the Magnificent Mile between Oak Street and Chicago Avenue make the strip the third highest area for fatalities.

One of the main changes Mitzen is asking for is extended traffic lights to give slower walkers a chance to cross.

The group highlighted that slower people, mainly young kids and the elderly, have to start walking as soon as the light changes to have enough time to cross. But with busier intersections, cars try to get through the lights as late as they can, delaying pedestrians from crossing.

Mitzen serves as the president of Skyline Village Chicago and is a member of the Mayor’s Commission for Age Friendly Chicago. She’s also planning, along with State Representatives, a town hall meeting  in February at Ogden Elementary School to focus on pedestrian safety.

“I think they certainly heard what we  had to say,” she said. “And having (Alderman Brian Hopkins) come certainly  helped. We’re following up with a town hall meeting at the Ogden School and two state Reps. will come. We’ll ask for updates there.” 

She will also be asking for updates on the plan for Vision Zero, a strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities.

“It’s a worldwide initiative for an age friendly city,” Mitzen said. “Chicago is signed on and it’s not clear where they are with the plan.”

For more information on Vision Zero, visit chicago.gov  

Mean Girls musical teaches important life lessons

By Elisa Shoenberger

While many people will be snapping their fingers to the music while leaving Mean Girls, they will also be taking away some life lessons.

“It’s very clear that (though) it is a comedy that there are dire repercussions to being mean—to being a bad person,”  said Danielle Wade, principal actor playing the lead role of Cady Heron. 

Wade appreciates that Cady Heron “starts out one way and goes through all these emotions that we have felt and dealt with in high school or post high school. She faces repercussions for actions too and I think that’s really important.”

The Mean Girls musical is based on the 2004 movie by Tina Fey. It’s the story of  Cady Heron who grew up in Africa and finds herself in the world of high school cliques in the suburbs. She becomes part of the Plastics, a popular trio of girls led by Regina George, and faces some tough challenges arising from her decisions.

The musical has something to offer for everybody.

“There is a character within the show that everyone can relate to—or parts of each character that everyone can relate to,” Wade said. She’s met many people at the stage door that have told her that they saw themselves in various characters.

When Wade was on Broadway, a woman told her she realized that she was Regina in high school and needed to go make an apology phone call to her high school friend.

“On the inside, I was like ‘Regina is very scary, that’s scary to me.’ That was  cool that she recognized that and felt she needed to say something,” Wade said.

 Mean Girls helps people better under- stand issues of cliques and bullying. 

“I think it’s given people language to talk about this problem. When 12 to 13 year old girls refer to ‘Mean Girls,’ we know what they are talking about,” child  therapist and president of Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute Erika Schmidt said. 

Wade hopes that people will take something away from the show.

“The show is goofy and it’s rooted in humor, but it’s really truthful. As much as we joke and are dressed head to toe in pink outfits, it’s an important message for people to hear,” she said.

Mean Girls runs through Jan. 26 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, and will tour across the U.S. throughout 2020.  

Chicagoan ready for round two of roaring 20s

by Mat Cohen

The 1920s was a decade unfamiliar to most. But Wanda Bridgeforth remembers it well.

Bridgeforth saw the Great Depression, World War II and lived in Chicago when the tallest building was eight stories high.

As the year 2020 begins, she’s ready to welcome the changes that a second shot at the ‘20s will bring. 

Bridgeforth, 98, takes a writing class at the Chicago Cultural Center but has more stories to tell that aren’t on paper. 

“My life has been different than average,” she said. “But I’m still a kid at heart.” 

Bridgeforth grew up in Bronzeville and has lived in Princeton Park, the Loop and now Hyde Park for the past 16 years. 

As a kid in the 1920s, Wanda’s family visited downtown Chicago once a year to see the Christmas decorations.

“We got dressed up to come downtown with gloves and hats,” she said. “Once a year we came down to Marshall Field’s to see the tree. Then we went up to the eighth floor to look down on it.”  She said although the Christmas setup is still the same, most things have changed drastically.

“Downtown is so different than what it was,” she said. “ The department stores, the theaters, all the high-rises. Sometimes I just have to suck in my breath and go with the flow. Everything is moving so fast these days with all of this technology. It’s just amazing to me.” 

As a kid, she saw neighbors stick together through thick and thin.

“The Depression came when I was about six or seven,” she said. “That’s when everybody’s life turned upside down. We had a closeness and a strong community spirit that we don’t have now.”

This tightness helped during World War II when her husband was stationed overseas.

“When he went overseas it was 56 days from Chicago to India,” she said. “I didn’t know he was in India, I just knew he was away from home.”

Beth Finke, who leads the writing class, has grown close to Bridgeforth.

“(Wanda) is profoundly deaf and I am totally blind,” she said. “Maybe we connect because both of us acknowledge  our disabilities without letting it de ne us. We both are resourceful and have to figure out ways to do certain things  that others do with their ears and eyes.”

Bridgeforth said there was another reason she was drawn to Finke.

“We clicked immediately,” she said. “Primarily through (Finke’s guide) dog because I love animals.”  

Realistic resolutions: Keep ‘new year, new you’ working

Gym managers say setting smaller goals along the way helps

by Mat Cohen

You’re not alone. According to  Strava, a social network for athletes, most people don’t keep their  New Year’s resolutions past Jan. 12. That’s when, just nearly two weeks after the start of the year, lack of motivation creeps out like a monster from under the bed. 

Roughly 55 percent of resolutions are health-related, according to The Personality and Social  Psychology Bulletin, so how can we avoid biting off more than we  can chew in early January?

Head trainer Kelsey Slotter from Planet Fitness at 240 E. Illinois St. has some ideas. 

Slotter says finding other people with like-minded goals can  keep people motivated.

“We offer free fitness training that is included with all our  memberships,” she said. “Utilize group training classes to provide the encouragement, energy and motivation you need to reach your goals during the holidays.”

Lakeshore Sport & Fitness assistant general manager Luis  Davila says having a solid foundation to grow upon and utilizing  a fitness assessment the gym includes for new members, is important for hitting goals.

“It’s important for people to  understand resources when setting fitness goals,” said Davila  who explained that setting smaller goals can help along the way. 

“One thing might not be the answer for the full year and you might  need to change it up,” he said. “I think that’s critical to understand when people are setting their goal.”

Slotter believes enjoying small victories on the path to reaching a  bigger goal is as important as celebrating the final accomplishment.  Planet Fitness has a pizza party planned for January to keep the pressures of a resolution at bay.

“Ten minutes on the treadmill can lift your mood and help you get through the day,” Slotter said. “Schedules this time of year may  not allow for a longer workout, which is okay, but just hit the gym when you can.”

For those with kids, Davila, a  father, says the family member- ship at LSF which includes free  childcare and a family play space is great for him.

“It’s hard for me to even come in and work out in the mornings,” he said. “Having that option during group classes, during your  regular routine, that is an absolutely huge help as far as breaking  a barrier to entry and a commitment to year-long fitness goals.” 

Both locations offer new year promotions on membership. For more information visit lakeshoresf.com and planetfitness.com  

Chicago restaurants showcase future of dining

by Doug Rapp

Self-ordering kiosks with food appearing in a cubby minutes later. Robots working as concierges and assisting restaurant servers.

All of these are happening in Chicago in what might be a version of dining in the future.

 Hotel EMC2, which bills itself as “at the intersection of art and science,” has added two  robot concierges. Named Leo and Cleo, the robots deliver amenities for guests who book the Bot Experience Package through March 2020, according to website Travel Pulse.

The X Pot, a Chinese hot pot restaurant, plans to use robots at its South Loop location  opening this summer, according to the Chicago Tribune. Owner David Zhao told the  Tribune the robots will move around similarly to Roombas, delivering food to tables and  taking away empty dishes.

Wow Bao, a fast Asian street food eatery,  has two fully automated locations, plus a semi-automated one in Streeterville. At the 200 N. Michigan Ave. spot, customers order from a kiosk and their food is placed in a cubby, limiting human interaction.

“It makes the ordering process a lot faster and more accurate because you’re entering your own order,” said Christine Reznicek, Wow Bao’s marketing manager.

The restaurant usually has two to three employees preparing the food, according to Reznicek, and a concierge up front during peak times to assist customers.

Reznicek said it’s a feature the company wants to move forward with.

 “We like the excitement that it encourages,” she said. “It definitely is a draw for  traffic coming in.”

The reception has been almost uniformly positive, Reznicek said.

“It’s been great. Once everyone gets used to the order flow, they like it. We’re pretty big with tourists. They hear about it and want to  come check out the animations.”

She was referring to the dancing bitmojis that traipse across the cubbies’ thin screens at the 200 N. Michigan location.

 KDM Engineering employee Mani Appalamcen, who was picking up lunch, said he  “loves” the vegan options at Wow Bao.

“I like the way your order appears on the monitor and then in the cubby,” he said. “That’s cool and it’s convenient.”

Cleanna Smith, a supervisor at the 200 N. Michigan location, said the technology rarely  has problems but occasionally a guest needs help navigating the ordering stations. 

“I just like that we have all this technology that’s a new experience for people,”  Smith said.  

Restaurant Week the ultimate test for New Year’s resolutions

by Jon Cohn

The challenge is on, and it won’t be easy.  The problem? This month features  Restaurant Week. 

One of Chicago’s most celebrated winter events is about to  kick off and it will provide the greatest of challenges to those  still  fighting to keep those resolutions of eating a little less and  watching their waistline.

Dangerous territory, indeed. If you do venture out, here is some basic information: 

More than 370 of Chicago’s  nest restaurants will participate in the 13th annual Restaurant Week from Jan. 24  to Feb. 9.  e event has grown every year and features a multitude of the eateries from downtown, nearby neighborhoods and the suburbs—all offering discounted meals that include some of their finest selections.

Special menus are concocted, new items offered and the friendly, service-with-a-smile atmosphere make up a truly tempting 17 days of potentially eating your way through the Chicago area.

Yes, those New Year’s resolutions will be severely tested.

Can they hold up under the pressure of some of last year’s favorites such as octopus at The Dawson, cauliflower soup at Baptiste and Bottle or chorizo-stuffed  dates at Avec Mediterranean Restaurant? The popular pork bellies at Enzo can rip apart New Year’s resolutions faster than Michael Phelps cuts through water.

New restaurants will be fighting for your attention, including Pizzeria Portfolio on the riverfront; Tzuco in River North featuring a unique take on Mexican food; Cebu, a Filipino restaurant in Wicker Park; and Galit, a new Lincoln Park eatery specializing in Israeli food.

Bottom line? It will take some real fork discipline and a little mental toughness to not overindulge. I think they call that  the Chicago Way. For more information, go to ChooseChicago.com

John Cohn is a New Eastside resident.  

A cookie on a milkshake: JoJo’s Milk Bar to expand

by Stephanie Racine

When it’s hard to decide between desserts, JoJo’s can save the day. Have your cookie and eat it too—on top of a delicious milkshake.

JoJo’s Milk Bar, which has been making waves in the dessert bar scene with intricate and decadent offerings, opened in River North in February 2019 and recently expanded to a milkshake kiosk in Streeterville.

JoJo’s Shake Bar is on the second  floor Mezzanine of Water Tower Place, near kid-friendly shops such as American Girl, The LEGO Store and The Art Of Dr. Seuss. 

JoJo’s will be partnering with Unicorn World By Lola + The Boys, another nearby kids store,  to offer the Unicorn Shake, a blueberry cherry shake, topped with items like cotton candy, a  sprinkle-dipped cone and candy Do Do’s. 

Co-founder Robbie Schloss is excited to bring JoJo’s to Water Tower and hopes customers will  take part in the “grander-than- life” experience. The “enhanced  retro diner” was inspired by Schloss’s childhood and named for his daughter.

 Unlike its River North location, which serves food and alcohol, JoJo’s Shake Bar focuses on  sweeter fare. Menu items include the Chocolate Nirvana, a shake with Oreos, and the BIGGIE Salted Caramel hot chocolate. The site offers infused milks and assorted freshly baked cookies—  if you prefer them separate from the milkshake.

JoJo’s Milk Bar in River North is also adding some new options.

“JoJo’s will also embark on a  new partnership with Chica- go-based manufacturer of organic Cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD  products, Half Day CBD, for adult diners interested in adding  CBD oil or gummies to milk- shakes, cocktails, hot chocolate  drinks and  oats,” according to a news release.

JoJo’s Shake Bar is open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday.  For more information, visit jojosmilkbar.com.  

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