By Adam Gerber
As we round the bend to what we hope are the final weeks of this seemingly interminable pandemic, my mind has been wandering recently to what my first tastes of normalcy will be. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I will choose to designate as the all-important “first outing”. It’s a tough call and, as someone who loves food and is new to the city, involves a lot of reflection (maybe too much reflection). Do I go to a bar and have a cold beer? Do I sit down to a great breakfast? If so where? And I have to be honest, takeout is not involved in those internal discussions. While I have thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of chef’s labor over the past year and change as they fought valiantly to innovate and survive while maintaining the quality and soul of their food, I’m kinda just over it. Another meal in a wax-coated cardboard box just wasn’t what my heart was calling for but, man, sometimes my heart is a downright dirty liar.
Sfera is a Sicilian Street Food spot operating as an around-town pop-up out of a ghost kitchen in Avondale. For those unfamiliar, a ghost kitchen (or cloud kitchen) is a kitchen space that operates almost entirely for delivery, with some pick-up. This particular kitchen hosts upwards of 10 restaurants, and at the dinner rush is a hive of delivery drivers buzzing in and out with orders. Suffice it to say, if you live on the North Side, Sfera probably delivers to your house, and boy is that good news for you.
I love me some classic Italian food (who doesn’t), but I do find it can get a little monotonous; variations on the same theme. Well, now I’m a new convert to Sicilian. Although it does share a lot of commonalities with classic Italian, Sicily’s location on the Mediterranean means that its culinary history has seen Greek, Spanish, French, and even Middle Eastern influences over the years. It’s in this unique blend of influences and flavors where Sfera finds its unique stride, with the obligatory Chicago twist of course.
Many things about Sfera impressed me, but the standout attribute that really makes Sfera worthwhile is balance. Take the arancini—a Sicilian specialty, they are balls made out of risotto stuffed with a cheese-based filling (be it mushroom and fontina, ricotta and garlic, or beef and mozzarella), then rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Sounds like a lot, right? Delicious, but also a lot. Somehow, Sfera pulls these off almost perfectly. Defying the laws of physics themselves, after I was late to pick them up and then drove the 20 minutes home in traffic, these golden orbs of crispy deliciousness were still utter perfection. A bite of a Sfera arancini, even after delivery, provides three distinct experiences: first, you get the crisp of the breadcrumb shell, fried perfectly. Next, you experience the risotto: soft as a pillow with a pleasantly surprising spring. Then you get to the filling where you hit all of the classic and satisfying flavors with a nice cheese pull to boot. The way these are constructed, the risotto insulates the filling from any of the grease, so they don’t feel saturated or gross. It’s a perfectly balanced triad of crispy, pillowy, and a filling that I’ll probably fall asleep thinking about. These aren’t your neighborhood bar’s mozzarella sticks, these are (now say it like the Godfather) arancini.
Now on to the co-headliner of the evening, Scaccia (ska-cha). Scaccia is definitively not calzone, it’s absolutely not even remotely close to a calzone, don’t even think that. With that said, it’s kinda like a calzone. But it’s what you’ve always wanted a calzone to be. Even after transportation, they have a crispy well-baked exterior. The filling is neither too saucy nor too cheesy and hits just the right notes. I can’t imagine how many iterations it took to make this Scaccia as great as it is, but I’m glad they put in the time. A word to the wise, these things are big—my partner and I split one, and it was more than a full meal. We tried the “Chicago Style” with sausage, peppers, and onions. I love a good Chicago-style sausage, full of sage with a tender beefy bite, and oh did I love it in this Scaccia. I’m fairly confident in saying that a Chicago-style Scaccia is something you can’t get anywhere else in the world, so you better get it here. This scaccia will make your Sicilian grandma and your construction worker cousin equally happy. It’s such a satisfying bite, it’s what you’ve always needed.
There are, naturally, other items on the Sfera menu that are good but aren’t things I’d go out of my way for. The Insalata alla Norma is a fine salad with grilled squash, pepper, almonds, and a nice vinaigrette with a light spice to it. It’s a solid, crisp, fresh salad that offsets the heavier mains quite well. For the adventurous drinker, Sfera also offers cocktail bases. I tried the Saffron Sour because it’s billed as their signature mix. I’m not usually a sour drinker, so I think it’s on me for ordering wrong, but I found it a little too sweet and likely wouldn’t order it again. However, if you’re a sour fan you certainly have my permission to take me on in open debate, perhaps over some arancini.
To bring it all home, Sfera has some truly excellent cannolis. Normally I skip cannoli if I can’t watch them get filled (snobby I know but it’s who I am), nevertheless I tried these in the name of science, and again, I was glad to be mistaken—A+ shells with great fillings. The pistachio was my favorite, as it’s just such a classic, unbeatable combo. The cherry was also solid, but for me, it’s worthwhile to stick with the classics here.
If you live on the North Side, you can eat Sfera for dinner tonight without traveling past your front door and that makes you lucky. A fresh take on some approachable classics, it leans on flavors your palette knows but delights in new and expertly executed preparations. Though I’m still unsure which restaurant will be my first after lockdown, I certainly believe that I’ll be ordering from Sfera a few more times before I get to sit down to that breakfast.
More about Sfera
Photos: Adam Gerber