Athena Uslander used to be a structural engineer, but today she's a baker. If you asked Athena what the two professions have in common, she'd likely say attention to detail. If you asked her customers at Athena’s Silverland Desserts, however, they'd be too busy chewing a mouthful of cookie, rice treat, or brownie to answer. Since 1983, Athena has helmed the ovens at her bakery in Elmwood Park. Her signature brownie recipe has garnered her some national attention, including an appearance on Oprah and The Today Show. Now, customers nationwide call in or hire a banner plane to put in their orders for the confections that Athena and her staff make from all-natural ingredients—free of trans fats, additives, and preservatives.
Organic and small-batch wines fill swirling glasses beneath the soaring ceilings of House Red Vinoteca. At a rustic, reclaimed-wood bar, discerning staff members subject new elixirs to tastings and credit checks, and the chef makes changes to a rotating menu of vino-enhancing fare made from scratch. Plates bearing crispy flatbreads and desserts inspired by international culinary traditions glide back and forth between duos chattering beneath exposed-brick walls. The warm sway of live jazz rolls across wine-tasting events and bottle-laden shelves, and patrons sipping through tasting flights from Croatia, Lebanon, Morocco, Serbia, and Slovenia add delicate treble notes with clinking glasses.
Designated the Forest Park/Oak Park area’s best local coffee shop by Chicago magazine in 2007, Blue Max Coffee treats farmers and taste buds with equal consideration, serving a menu of fair-trade joe and café eats. The shop’s baristas freshly roast and taste test brews, allowing only the most esteemed coffees to kiss locals' lips. The primo potables are complemented by homemade fare such as the breakfast panini with applewood-smoked bacon, spinach, scrambled eggs, and cheddar cheese ($8.50). Organic steel-cut oats, granola, blueberries, bananas, vanilla soy protein powder, and steamed milk conspire to create just-right bowls of breakfast porridge ($6.75) ideal for taunting bears of all sizes.
The Lollino family has a long tradition of talented Italian coffee roasters and chefs, fortified by a passion that spans generations. It inspired them to open Massa Italian Cafe & Gelateria using the cooking methods and recipes that had been passed on in their family for years. Spanning the culinary history of Italy, the menu boasts grilled paninis, hearty pasta dishes, and 11" thin crust pizzas with a wide variety of toppings. The centerpiece of the eatery's menu is its espresso bar, with steaming cups of pure espresso or blends such as the caramelccino, cookies-n-cream, and a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso inside. Every morning, the staff makes more than 30 flavors of Gelato onsite, from vanilla and pistachio to spumoni and melon sorbet, and they've spent hours mixing and matching flavors to make specialty treats such as the domenica - two scoops of gelato topped with whipped cream, nuts, and an Italian wafer cookie.
Every morning, the dough masters at Aracely's Bakery rise before dawn to craft house-made cupcakes, pastries, and sandwiches to bejewel their display cases. Confectionary artists transform dreams into fondant-covered reality by crafting custom cakes for birthdays, baby showers, and Eat a Portrait of Your Boss day. Meanwhile, traditional Mexican recipes lend sweetness to cakes and spice to 11 kinds of sandwiches, whose ingredients include avocado, chihuahua cheese, and secret sauce, and pack flavor into handheld meals.
It starts with homemade mango ice cream. Slices of fresh mango thicken the mixture, and splashes of lime, salt, and chamoy—a sauce known for being sweet, sour, and spicy all at once—settle in, ready to surprise taste buds with their complex mix of flavors. The resulting drink, a Chamango, is one of many specialty blends at La Dulce Vida Neveria, a cafè that stirs up Mexican-style sweets and snacks. Baristas mix chocolate abuelitas and cafe con leche, and they blend pineapple, cucumber, or melon to create fruit smoothies. Fresh fruit resurfaces in the selection of desserts: bananas and papaya line bionic fruit sundaes, and strawberry triangles encircle shortcake à la mode to keep it from running off and joining the circus as “the crumbly lady.” In addition to sweets, customers dig into savory snacks such as nachos, chicharrones, and Cheetos con queso.