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.
Avanti Caffé is located at 200 W. Jackson, just down the street from the Willis Tower (or "Big Willie," as some of the natives prefer). Though there are better Italian restaurants in town, what's really important to note here are the prices: A lot of lunch places charge in excess of $10 per meal, but here the value is impressive. The total of all the food pictured below was had for just over $20, and that was enough food for three or four people.
There are a lot of options, including an array of sandwiches, salads, pizzas, calzones, soups, and pastas. But I started with the stuffed pepper ($4.95), which is exactly as it sounds -- a bell pepper stuffed with Italian sausage, topped with melted mozzarella, and doused with a lot of marinara. It comes with a side of focaccia to sop up any red sauce you might have missed. And don't let the picture fool you, this plate takes up the entire surface of the tray. This is exactly what you want to eat if you feel like sleeping through your 2 p.m. conference call.
Another interesting choice you don't see in many lunch places in the Loop is the arancini ($3.75, pictured on the left), which is a deep-fried rice ball stuffed with meat. It's a cheerful little bundle of food and comes with a side of marinara to brighten things up.
Avanti also features a different soup every day of the week, including a tortellini soup and a split pea and prosciutto. But the most popular soup is also featured every day: the pasta e fagioli ($2.60, pictured above on the right). It features a tomato and vegetable-based broth with white beans and pasta. Even though it's vegetarian, it still packs an impressively savory flavor.
There's also a large selection of sandwiches, including some paninis, American subs, and Italian subs. I'd have to go with the latter. Pictured is the Avanti Classic ($4.95), which comes with capicola, soppressata, mortadella, provolone, roasted red peppers, lettuce, tomato, and Italian dressing. Hot Giardiniera, a spicy combination of pickled peppers in oil, is a must.
On the way out, make sure to pick up at least one of the cinnamon-cheese sticks ($.99) that sit quietly next to the cash register. Or maybe five. Seriously. A puffy pastry surrounds a sweet cheese (think cheesecake) filling that is also dusted with cinnamon. There's a chocolate variety, but after you have the regular kind you'll be hooked.
Avanti Caffé 200 W Jackson Blvd, Chicago, IL 60606 (map) 312-957-1301; avanticaffe.com
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