Lunch in the Loop: Caffè Baci
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
Strangely enough, I've reviewed Caffè Baci twice, indirectly. One time I reviewed the Jo Jo Sandwich for A Sandwich a Day, and the other time, I went to Caffe RōM for lunch and a coffee break. Caffè Baci supplies Caffe RōM (I will never get tired of this ō) with its premade sandwiches, but Caffè Baci has a ton of other options other than slightly pricey sandwiches. And now, this is probably the most times in human history that a person has used the word "Caffè" in one paragraph. Caffè. I now officially grant you permission to punch me in the mouth.
Caffè Baci serves food in the same familiar format as, say, Corner Bakery. You've got your rotating soups, sandwiches, salads, pasta, and the like, but Baci puts an Italian twist on everything. With all those options, are any of them worth spending your hard earned money on?
Right out the gate, I recommend the Tre Insalate ($8.29), but with some reservations. As you know from reading Lunch in the Loop regularly (just kidding, everybody hates my face and nobody reads my stuff), I'm an indecisive person and so I love sampler plates. On the top, you're looking at a classic caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil, along with chicken salad on the right and cheese tortellini salad on the left. The caprese salad is simple and dressed only in olive oil, which, sadly, makes for a bland experience—you really need acid to bolster the flavor of the fresh cheese.
The chicken salad features large cubes of white meat doused in thick mayo, but is light on the seasoning, and the tortellini salad is as simple as it looks—it's just chilled pasta with an herb pesto sauce. All in all, these are inoffensive items if you're into unadorned and lightly seasoned food.
My second bundle of items fared much better. The marinated olives are salty and distinct. Rather than include this as part of your main meal, I might suggest you just get a single order of the olives and bring them back to the office for an afternoon snack. The antipasto salad is decent, but not fantastic—after the cheese has been marinated, it takes on a grainy texture, and the salami gets rubbery. The black olives and the crunchy celery slices are the saving graces.
However, quinoa salad is the best out of the bunch. It's unexpectedly sweet, flecked with fresh mint, little bits of apple, and golden raisins. The fresh mint is really what makes this quinoa different, as it's grassy, vibrant, and cooling. Overall, I think the Tre Insalate can potentially be a good lunch, but the art is in what you pick. Aside from these six options, there are at least ten more salads that I didn't try.
Of the handful of pizza options, I picked the prosciutto-heavy Milano ($7.79). It's hard to recommend this thing, or any other of the pizzas, for that matter. And why, you ask? Simply put, the crust is a total disappointment. It comes fully prebaked in a little circle, ready for assembly, and it's unappealingly chewy, dry, pale, and flavorless. A ton of arugula and a huge pile of prosciutto are stacked on, along with a few shreds of shaved parmesan and a tiny sprinkle of lemon olive oil (which is nearly undetectable). The amount of arugula, which ordinarily is a good pairing with prosciutto, is simply overwhelming and very bitter. And the amount of prosciutto is just too much. Prosciutto by itself is wonderful, but as an ingredient, it requires restraint. With no sauce involved, and with that crust, you're basically looking at a chewy bland dry disc covered with bitter greens and overly salty toppings.
The Juneau sandwich ($7.29), unfortunately, doesn't fare any better. In theory, it's already a strange sandwich of tuna mixed with red bell peppers, topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and a ton of pickled banana peppers, all on a ciabatta roll. The tuna is intensely fishy, more so than I'm used to, and the banana peppers make the sandwich veer off into a completely different direction. I generally enjoy tuna salad, but I can't recommend this sandwich.
In theory, most of the food at Caffè Baci is straightforward, but in execution, things just don't seem to pan out. The flavors are toned down in a politically correct way as to not offend anybody, but that makes for food that lacks in spirit. There are multiple outposts, and they are all attractive, sleek, and sophisticated-looking with a polished lunch chain feel, but I'd be hard pressed to show up again. So am I off? Did I miss something, or have an unusual experience? What do you guys think?
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.