Made a quick escape to Cleveland this weekend and kept running into natives who were astounded that someone would come from Chicago just for kicks. I was on a mission, however, with a number of things to check off my list: visits to Michael Symon’s Lola (check) and Lolita (check), cocktails at the magnificent Velvet Tango Room (check), National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame (check), and a Saturday-morning dive into the West Side Market.
Those Clevelanders are too modest. They have a beautiful, year-round, historic indoor market packed with independent butchers, bakers, candy makers, cheese shops, fishmongers, produce vendors, and specialty shops. It’s almost too staggering to wrap your head around in one visit, and damn near impossible to leave without bags and bags of good stuff to eat.
Small example: I had no intention of stockpiling olives, but I was snared by the display of stuffed fruit at Rita’s, a 43-year-old stall specializing in preserved fruit, vegetables, and sauces in one form or another. Proprietress Renee began plying me with samples of some of her 30 varieties of stuffed olives; salami and fennel, garlic, wasabi, chorizo, roast beef, and horseradish-cheddar, a one-of-a-kind corned-beef-and-kraut stuffed Reuben olive, and on and on. Before I knew it I had $28 worth in my shopping bag, and I was scooting off for a pastrami buckwheat crepe down the hall.
On Saturday morning the market was jammed with people. Even in this economy, if a midsize rust-belt city can support a place like that there’s no reason Chicago can’t. I’ve said it before: Chicago can never seriously consider itself a world-class food city until it builds a market like this.