Hanging Out in Rockford: ‘Ménage à trois’: An idea is born

I don’t know how I get into some of the things I get into, but I do. I am sitting in Gerlinde’s Water Street Café talking about how the Provenzanos and the Lordens are going to buy Little Italy and how they are looking for someone to rent it from them. Gerlinde says she would be interested, and I call Matt on my cell phone. He gets back to me later, and we set up a dinner, a dinner to preview an idea for a new restaurant.

Gerlinde and I brainstorm, and as we do, we realize the focus of her restaurant should involve her heritage—she is German and French, and speaks both languages fluently. I have been high on the idea of a northern Italian restaurant somewhere in the city. I was always trying to persuade Debbie to do it, but she has gotten to a point where she is tired of the business. I, of all people, should understand that.

We’re sitting there talking, just throwing around ideas. I say it should incorporate the three cuisines that surround Switzerland—French, northern Italian and German. This will utilize Gerlinde’s heritage as well as that of the Provenzanos. For some reason, I leave the Lordens out of the picture, maybe because I think there is already a good Irish Gastropub in the neighborhood. I ask Gerlinde how to say three in French, and she replies trois. And just like that, I say Ménage à trois, and an idea is born. An arrangement for three—French, Italian and German.

We start working on the menu a few days in advance. I have been thinking about the northern Italian idea for some time now (I was thinking about doing it in my Rockton location, until Phyllis Beecher decided to rent it from me for her catering business), and I start to pick up some new items in the market. I ask my friends the Monahans at Robert’s Packing about veal, and they refer me to a company called Pioneer. I buy some wonderful veal leg slices. I pick up some venison Osso Bucco from Chicago Game.

Gerlinde comes over Monday night, and she and I and Troy have an organizing session. We take each of the dishes and assume responsibility for the ingredients and preparation. Yes, this is going to be one of those unusual times when I actually cook something. We lay out the menu in three parts according to the different cuisines. France: Escargot Provincial, Catfish Piperade, Pork Loin Calvados and Veal Piccata. Italy: Veal Saltimbocca, Whole Wheat Linguini with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Venison Osso Bucco and Braccialoni. Germany: Duck Breast St. Hubert and Alsatian Pork Loin. Dessert: Hanni’s Apple Tort and Grand Marnier Soufflé.

Wednesday, we start early. Troy and I are in the kitchen by 2 in the afternoon. We are doing new recipes, and that requires that we throw some things away when they are not up to our standards. This happens with the polenta—we make it too thick the first time and too thin the second. Finally, we get it right. The risotto comes out perfect, though, and I take a big soup spoon of it down to Gerlinde’s to show off. These are only side dishes, but we want them to be perfect.

The two Lorden boys and the two Provenzano boys arrive with their wives. (I can call them boys, I know both fathers, and the boys are the age of my son.) The dinner itself goes without a hitch. There is a little confusion about when we are supposed to start, but once that is over, I get out of the way and let the two actual working chefs take over. The food is perfect, except for the catfish, which has an inexplicable muddy flavor. Everything else is met with rave reviews.

After, I am sitting drinking wine with friends when someone brings me a copy of the mayor’s Christmas card. It is a Tom Heflin rendition of the front of the Irish Rose. I don’t think I have been so moved by something in a long, long time. It is the perfect Christmas present. Thank you, Mayor, and thank you, Rockford.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the Dec. 27 2006-Jan. 2, 2007, issue

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