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Friday, November 17

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Airbags

It's hot.

It's damned hot.

With the blossoming of summer comes the tide of events that make the warmer months in this city so great: barbecues, baseball (Go, Sox!), the beach, street fairs, festivals and more. Indeed, there seem to be countless ways to enjoy a good summer — out in the open with our friends.

But I feel like one element of summer has grown forgotten by the city's masses in recent years. One summer art has grown neglected. Maybe because the draw of larger events is greater — all of those people, all of those opportunities for interaction. Maybe because we Chicagoans, as a whole, have surrendered to the easy consumerism that has swept the nation. And maybe because we don't know that there are — that we have — other alternatives.

I submit to you the picnic, an art form too often forgotten by most Chicagoans (and Americans in general), especially picnics for more intimate groups. Certainly, it is practiced once and again by groups of 10 to 15 in the lakefront picnic areas — but not as often nor by as many as could be. A potluck or party is a hell of a lot easier to throw together than a meal for two, or maybe four; count on guests preparing a single dish to share/pass. A more intimate picnic takes so much work. And, honestly — show of hands, people — how many of us have a picnic basket?

One North side "upscale delicatessen" hopes to provide you with the answer — and an inspiring answer at that. Enter Pastoral — an artisan meats, cheeses and bread shop located at 2945 N. Broadway (just south of Wellington, easily accessible by the Broadway or Clark buses and just a few reasonable blocks East from the Wellington Brown line stop). The comfortable little shop offers customers a variety of gnoshes from around the world, including the aforementioned meats and cheeses as well as fine breads baked on the premises, an excellent selection of olives, jellies, honeys and wines selected specifically to suit the store's offerings.

Don't let Pastoral's gourmet aura drive you off: the knowledgeable staff are laid back and friendly and are dedicated to sharing their love of food with you in a relaxed, educative atmosphere. Tell them what foods you like and they'll offer you suggestions for new food options you're likely to enjoy. It's a great philosophy — one that they follow through brilliantly on and, I think, in a way that's fun to enjoy as a customer.

But we were talking about picnics, and this is where Pastoral pulls out the stops. Pastoral offers fine sandwiches and picnic boxes to order. The picnics are geared for two and come in at $29.99 per box. It's a great deal considering what you're getting: a meal composed of a variety of meats, cheeses, breads and sweets that are sure to satisfy and sate. Pastoral offers four picnics — an Italian, a Spanish, a French and an American — as well as a selection of sandwiches. Customers are asked to phone in orders for picnics a day in advance to give the staff time to prepare them (contact information follows at the end of the review).

At this point you must be asking, "So how is the food?" Let's rephrase and ask, "How is the dining experience?" because, frankly, that's what you're getting — especially if you take the picnic somewhere other than home to enjoy. It's an ideal season to get out there for an after-work picnic with a loved one or a friend — long hours, the heat, etc. I chose two opportunities to enjoy Pastoral's offerings, and this is what I came away with:

My boyfriend and I picked up the Amalfi Afternoon picnic (the Italian picnic) a week or so ago and, admittedly, unadventurously took it and a bottle of wine home with us to enjoy. Upon first inspection, the green box a little larger than a gallon of milk seemed, well, a little on the stingy side for $30 — containing two trays of meats, cheeses, and a caprese salad with olives and onions, the portions for which appeared to be small. Even so, we started in on the picnic with little trepidation and to our pleasant surprise it was actually quite good. We did have an immediate complaint which was that our selections were not clearly labeled. It was easy enough to distinguish the delicious caprese, the olives and the surprising balsamic vinegar-soaked onions from one another (duh), and separating the proscuitto from the salami wasn't too tough. But determining which of our cheeses was the Pecorino Toscano and which was Sardinia's Podda was a little difficult as we were unfamiliar with either. The picnic was accompanied by flatbreads, and a pair of biscotti served as an after-dinner sweet.

While the meats and cheeses were really quite good, the highlights of the meal were the caprese and the balsamic-soaked chipollini onions. The latter are about the size of golf balls and have been rendered a rosy violet by the vinegar. As a rule, I do not enjoy raw onions at all, but these were exceptional — sweet, crisp and a little tart. The caprese was assembled as a hefty log of fresh mozzarella and firm plum tomatoes — which was garnished by a sweet basil pesto.

The second complaint of our meal came from the country olive mix: most of the olives were, as would be expected, delicious, however we each managed at the same time to find a brutally bitter, sour olive — so much so that it put our palettes off to the rest of our olives.

All told, though, we were very satisfied with and sated by our picnic (it was far more filling than what we thought it would be) and were delighted by the wine that was suggested to us — the Dal Fari 2003, which is a great little Italian wine made with light, crisp Tocai Friulano grapes. Highly recommended at less than $15 a bottle — and Pastoral is one of the few shops in the city that keeps it on the shelf. It was the perfect complement to our meal.

Our second picnic came a few days later — this time the BF and I met up with a friend of mine, H., and together we took two picnics to the Belmont lakeshore. H. ordered the Amalfi (it really is a compelling choice) and the BF and I selected the Edible Espaņa. We opted out of the wine: there was no sense in spoiling a great evening with a ticket from Chicago's finest.

This round presented us with better-organized picnics: our meats and cheeses were clearly labeled with stickers on the lids of their containers (at last we knew which was the pecorino!). As we had been, H. was quite pleased with her meal. The Espaņa offered the BF and me some pretty interesting dining options: the Jamon Serrano — a thinly sliced ham — was light, mild and lightly salty. Though the slightest bit chewy, it had a nice buttery texture. Its cohabitant, the Saucíon Sec Basquese salami — was a spicier, meatier contrast. I was very pleased and the BF loved it — taking most of it for himself.

The Espaņa's cheeses were a greater contrast from one another as well. The Zamorano (a piquant sheep's milk cheese) was a little firmer than the softer, milder paprika-rubbed cows' milk Mahon it was paired with. I preferred the Mahon — it's flavors were subtly complemented by the paprika and I thought it made an excellent companion to the salami — mellowing and smoothing out its full-paletted spiciness just a little.

Though I approached them cautiously, the selection of olives here was wonderful (I probably ate too many). These were grouped with Piquillo Peppers (red Spanish peppers which I believe were roasted and were also a nice, sweet complement to the salami and ham) and marinated sweet garlic — which, like the Amalfi's onions, were a surprising twist on the uncooked vegetables, rendering them familiar yet different, sweet and snappy with none of the immediate over-powering aromas of the garlic. The box was rounded out by a nice, crusty baguette.

This meal's stand-out, however, were the thin slices of fig cake. The fig cake was beautifully marbled in swirling layers of flesh and seed, had a good moist bite, and held a delicious, almost herbal flavor. Fig lovers beware: I later returned to Pastoral for an extra wedge.

My guests took an opportunity during the meal to brainstorm and suggested two improvements for the Pastoral experience. Both agreed that moist towelettes would be a very useful accompaniment to the meal's utensils — though the picnics come with forks, knifes, plates and napkins, the nature of the meats, cheeses and olives makes it inevitable that diners will abandon the utensils and go at it with their fingers.

The other was that the meal could stand the light, refreshing touch of a bite of fruit — a tart pear, perhaps, or sour apple or grapes. Something to cleanse the palette between bites. I concur that a little fruit would complement the meals well.

These are small complaints, though, suggestions really. And we're looking forward to trying Pastoral's other picnics — Picnic Provinçial (French) and From Sea to Shining Sea (American).

As mentioned earlier, Pastoral asks that customers order picnics a day in advance by telephoning them at 773-472-4781. Orders can also be faxed to 773-472-4782. Stop by the shop at 2945 N. Broadway between 11am and 8pm Tuesday through Friday, 11am to 7pm Saturdays and 11am to 6pm on Sundays. Pastoral is closed Mondays. You can also visit www.pastoralartisan.com. Be sure to take time to chat with owners Greg O'Neil and Kevin Miller when you stop by.

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is the result of weekly dinners with members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Brandon Heckman.

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