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Passing Fancy

Spanish tapas traditions influence small plate offerings across cuisine

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013 11:58 a.m. CDT

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It’s been that food brings people together. In fact, we’ve been breaking bread together for centuries. So it’s no surprise that restaurants have evolved to create an even more social environment by offering small sharable plates of food.

Emilio and Anne Marie Gervilla have known the secret to creating a relaxed social environment for 25 years. At their family-run restaurant, Emilio’s Tapas in Hillside, food is about sharing, having fun, and enjoying many dishes. Anne Marie says they have created an energetic ambiance at the restaurant to complement the food, designed to transport diners to the Spanish countryside. And while Emilio’s offers raciones (traditionally portioned entrées), most guests indulge in the locale’s specialty: tapas. “It’s a fun group activity,” Anne Marie says of tapas dining. “It’s not committing to any one dish. It’s very interactive because you’re sharing.”

Emilio’s Tapas is ready to balance its tapas menu with your choice of red or white sangria, but it’s clear that creating a social and comfortable ambiance is something that many other restaurants are trying to emulate, picking up on Spain’s tradition of small plate sharing.

Davanti Enoteca in Western Springs is an Italian restaurant that invites guests to indulge in new, smaller twists on traditional dishes.

“I think it’s so popular because when you go out, it gets kind of boring always ordering the same things,” says Manager Mark Elsey.

Davanti Enoteca is pleasantly surprising its guests’ time and time again by offering up familiar dishes like pizza and steak,  but providing the opportunity to “test the waters” with items like its octopus focaccia bread.

If the social atmosphere is the melody of Flight 112 in Elmhurst, then the food should be the harmony. That’s the thought of chef Mark Ortiz, who says he wants food to be a complement to the flow of conversation rather than a disruptive interjection. Flight 112 has expanded on the small plates concept by offering sharable dishes influenced by Asian, Mexican, and Middle Eastern flavors.

Spanish tapas might have floated the idea of sharable menu items, but Japanese sushi-style restaurants have been on board for a long time. Designed for sharing, it’s the perfect date night choice. Nobody blinks an eye should you grab a slice of a spicy tuna maki roll from your date’s plate at the sushi bar, or an indulgent bite of Datiles con Tocino (bacon wrapped dates) at Emilio’s. But there’s much more at stake when attempting to share a plate of spaghetti, as opposed to a dinner made of several small plates of finger food.

While Spain might have cornered the market on tapas and Japanese has a firm hold on sushi, small plate dining now is a trend for the rest of the world to interpret and share. Gone are the days of choosing just a single entrée and keeping it entirely to yourself.

“People like to try new things ,” Elsey says, “and try other people’s food.”

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