Why eat one dinner when you could eat 12?
In my relatively short adult life, I've enjoyed the company of many close friends and a few special romantic companions. While these enduring relationships have revolved around a range of interests, I recently realized that there is one common denominator that unites me with all of these people-a profound and abiding love of eating. When we go out together, these friends, lovers and I invariably order two or more dishes with contrasting flavors and textures and split them all, reveling in the overload of gustatory stimulation. I've honed in on a few establishments that seem to be designed especially for this kind of communal feasting, and Apertivo-an Italian tapas and wine bar in North Park-is certainly one of them.
About the tapas thing: I understand there are many people for whom the word "tapas" conjures unfavorable images of trendy, overpriced and unsatisfying entrées, and I think this notion exists because it's too often the case. But unless you're the kind of eater who refuses to share, you'll probably agree that the concept of tapas is indeed a beautiful thing. After all, what could be so wrong with everyone getting to enjoy six different, delectable, diminutive dinners for the same amount you'd each pay to eat one ordinary enormous one? Thankfully, Apertivo understands what's necessary to make eating tapas-style worthwhile and they deliver the goods, offering up respectable portions, reasonable prices, and-the best part-delicious food.
You can order as many times as you like in whatever intervals you please. On my last visit we shared one appetizer, then each picked one entrée, shared all those, then went back and each picked a second entrée. Finally, we split two desserts, which made for a total of 11 different items for the four of us. (Even if you're not in the mood for an all-out food orgy, Apertivo is an equally good destination for cheap wine and a tasty snack. It boasts 40 wines by the glass, a good many of which are Italian and only $3, with the most expensive topping out at $8.)
Once we ordered, at no point was the table empty. We munched on breadsticks while waiting for the appetizer, which was followed by a timely rotation of our subsequent choices. We started with fried calamari-the rings-and-squiggly-leg kind, not the strip kind-which costs only $5 and was crisp, light and plentiful.
None of my dining companions was vegetarian, but I was with a veg-friend the first time I dined at Apertivo and she found the menu to be pleasantly accommodating. They offer plenty of meatless pastas, plus many grilled, roasted and sautéed vegetables, none of which cost more than $4 a plate. Standout veggies are the sherry-sauteed crimini mushrooms and the roasted baby carrots (the only cooked carrots I've not loathed). The arugula salad-with crumbled gorgonzola cheese, pecans and sweet onions-also costs $5 and was on the simple side, but the freshness of the ingredients made it worthwhile.
Pastas are listed by the sauce, and you get to choose what kind of noodles you want. Our server helped us identify which pastas best accompanied the sauces we had chosen, and we were equally enamored of the cappellini with mizithra cheese and browned butter, penne with gorgonzola-pecan cream sauce, and more penne with Carciofi, a light, olive-oil-based sauce with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and proscuitto (each was $6).
Manicotti ($4), chicken piccata ($7) and beef tenderloin ($8) rolled out next, each bite more delicious than the last. The chicken was juicy, the sauce lemony and plentiful. The tenderloin lived up to its name, and the manicotti-the only red-sauced item we sampled-was comfort food at its best, leaving us with just enough room left for our two soothing desserts, bread pudding with port sauce and chocolate mousse pie (both $4).
Still not convinced that a dinner of dainty tapas is going to satisfy your Hash House-sized hunger? To that I retort that both of my large male companions left the place rubbing their swollen bellies and craving post-dinner cigarette relief. Tapas can be your friend, your best friend, in fact, and Apertivo is ready to prove it.
Apertivo is open from 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.