For Fourth of July grilling, you want a recipe that’s reliably delicious and unfussy, something you can cook with one hand while holding a drink in the other. But, let’s be honest: A touch of something extra makes the holiday meal truly memorable, like a dusting of hot Controne pepper from Campania over a juicy watermelon salad, or a red wine marinade for succulent grilled lamb chops. Chef Tony Mantuano of Chicago’s celebrated Spiaggia restaurant shares tips on making these flavorful dishes.
Mantuano was raised in an Italian-American community in Kenosha, Wis., surrounded, in his words, “by a devotion to culture and food products.” His grandparents operated the Mantuano Food Shop, where his uncles also worked, and he vividly recalls his grandmother’s cooking and grandfather’s garden.
He moved to Chicago in the early 1980s, working as a chef in various restaurants. There, he met brothers Larry and Mark Levy, who were developing a new restaurant on Michigan Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan and were in search of an opening chef. As the soon-to-be Spiaggia was being built (spiaggia means “beach” in Italian), Mantuano spent a year in Italy with his wife, Cathy, working in restaurants via Larry Levy’s connections.
That era was far from the Italophile craze in American food culture today, Mantuano remembers. “There were no Americans doing stages in 1982, ’83,” he laughs. “There were Italians, Japanese, South Africans, but there were no Americans in any of the kitchens. And we worked in at least six restaurants.”
The firsthand experience paid off. Since its opening in 1984, Spiaggia and Mantuano have gone on to win numerous dining awards, including Wine Spectator’s Best of Award of Excellence since 2009 for the restaurant’s 750-selection wine list. Now also a partner, Mantuano recently encouraged his executive chef Joe Flamm to compete on Top Chef. Flamm won.
Chef Mantuano’s two-part Fourth of July menu starts with a light salad of juicy watermelon, fresh mint, olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of dried hot Controne pepper. Sprinkled over the top are shavings of Pecorino Romano and crunchy candied pistachios, cooked in a simple syrup. (As a shortcut, you can simply toast the pistachios in sugar and salt, Mantuano adds, though you’ll get less caramelized flavor and crunch.) In the summertime, this fruity salad is a top-seller at his more casual Cafe Spiaggia.
The main course is grilled lamb shoulder chops, which Mantuano says is his favorite cut. “It’s next to the bone, there’s a little H-bone in there. It can be supertender if it’s handled right, marinated right and charcoal-grilled,” he says.
The red wine marinade, which turns the meat a dark plum hue, is important for its role in tenderizing the meat, as well as adding flavor. “As you cut into it and chew it, you have the meat juices mixed with the red wine flavor,” says Mantuano. A side of seasonal beans provides balance to the robust meat.
Wine director Rachael Lowe recommends a Vietti Roero Arneis 2017, a medium-bodied, unoaked white from Piedmont, to pair with the watermelon salad. Mantuano, an advocate of undervalued Italian sparklers, adds that a Ferrari brut rosé would also work well. For the lamb chops, Lowe suggests a structured Tuscan Sangiovese, such as the Sanguineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2014.
Below, Wine Spectator shares an additional six white and six red Italian wines to try out.
Mantuano is keeping busy with two new upcoming restaurants—a new concept in Orlando’s Disney Springs and another project in partnership with the Chicago Cubs baseball team at Wrigley Field—but his plans for Independence Day are in place.
“[The Cubs] have a Chef Series event where they have a group of seven or eight chefs each take over a concession stand for a weekend and do maybe four [food] items. It’s been really fun,” says Mantuano. “So that’s one of the things I’ll be doing. But we always go to Wisconsin to see family around the holidays. I’m sure we’ll be grilling lamb chops there.”