Dish is a skillet meal fit for a cast-iron stomach
Waiter Mario Velez scoops out a plate of Chicken al Forno (chicken from the oven) - a 9-inch skillet consisting of half of a wood-roasted chicken ensconced in a pound and a half of penne, cooked weight - at Johnny's Kitchen and Tap, 1740 Milwaukee Ave., Glenview.
Updated: September 30, 2011 12:02PM
"Hey, Mario," I asked the waiter as he went by. "Does anybody actually finish one of these things?"
Mario Velez shook his head as he passed the 9-inch skillet weighing down my table, brimming with several pounds of steaming victuals.
"Some people come close," he said with a grin.
Velez makes his bones at Johnny's Kitchen & Tap, one of those places where no one goes away hungry. Even the salads are big, with the lettuce and tomatoes typically loaded up with beef or chicken, just to make sure that everybody gets enough protein to fight the Taliban.
But nothing at the Glenview restaurant, 1740 Milwaukee Ave., is as mighty as Chicken al Forno -- half of a wood-roasted chicken ensconced in a pound and a half of penne, cooked weight.
The chicken is doable, but the pasta -- that's nuts. No one is going to eat all that pasta unless he's got a death wish.
If they do, they've come to the right place, in a way. When co-owner Mary Venezia introduced me to the chef, Juan Haro, she told me with delight that one of her partners, Jimmy Panagakis, says that Haro, in Greek, translates roughly as I Want You to Die.
She looked at me meaningfully, knowing I have now traveled to local restaurants 15 times to eat and report on food bigger than my head, while smarter men my age start each day with oatmeal and end with Lipitor.
Haro assured me that he did not intend to terminate my existence or that of any of his other customers, and that he's not even a little bit Greek.
He showed me how he made Chicken al Forno, chicken from the oven. First, whole chickens are slow-roasted on a wood-stoked rotisserie. Each half is cut in four pieces and laid atop the big panful of cooked pasta, sauced with homemade marinara, and then blasted in a 500-degree pizza oven. Then more sauce, parmesan and fontinella cheese, and another scorching.
What emerges is a skillet-full of food that looks like a lot more fun than anything that's basically chicken and noodles.
And it is.
The chicken's definitely the star. All that wood-roasting permeates the meat, elevating it to a comfort-food level similar to proteins that are a lot more fattening, like fried chicken or even steak.
The sauce that bathes the chicken and pasta is made from California tomatoes, garlic and various roasted vegetables, made gooey with the cheeses, and thickened by all that pizza-oven blasting.
The chicken tasted better than any lowly chicken has a right to. The pasta, too, and I socked away more than I'm used to eating, but there was still a lot left over. I took it home, and it was dinner for three. Pretty good for $14.95, plus tax.
Venezia said I was typical of the 10 dozen people who order the dish weekly.
"All that pasta is just for eye appeal," she said. "We're known for our portions being big, known for people taking something home with them. In reality, the pasta costs nothing."
About seven years ago, Venezia and Panagakis, looking for a new dish to show off their wood-roasted chicken, came up with the al forno.
The day after their epiphany, they found the big, 3-inch-deep Bon Chef aluminum-alloy skillets at the National Restaurant Association Show at McCormick Place. Bon Chef is the same New Jersey manufacturer of the bucket-like "Three-Quart Kettle w/Bail Handle" that's the vehicle for Chicken in the Pot at Northbrook's Max and Bennie's, featured in an earlier Mega Bites story (You can see what the kettles look like at pioneerlocal.com/megabites).
Both products were designed for preparation and service on big buffet lines, but nowadays often wind up as single-service containers, Bon Chef owner Sal Torre said.
More and more, diners like to get their money's worth.
"You go to any of these restaurants that are doing extremely well, and they're sure enough going to be serving big portions," Torre said. "That's America. You go to Europe, and they think we're crazy."